While many modular users prefer to go a la carte and build an instrument to meet
their individual needs, there are situations where a preconfigured system is the
way to go. For example, they can serve as a suitable introduction to the world of
modular synthesis for musicians who are new to the field by providing the basic
system elements (oscillator, filter, envelope generator, etc.) needed to start
exploring sound without getting lost in too many options or esoteric functionality.
However, the novice is not the only one
who could benefit from a preconfigured system.
Educational institutions with courses
in sound design often invest in a complete
system in order to get a turnkey instrument
where everything is fully compatible and
ready to use.
The systems in this article range from basic
single-voice instruments designed for newbies to fairly complex composer systems that require a
major investment in time to comprehend fully.
But no matter which way you go, a preconfigured system is extensible. Because you’re working in a
modular system (as opposed to a semi-modular system where all of the features are built into one large
panel), you are encouraged to modify or expand your setup, either by swapping out individual modules
for other sounds and functions, or by adding modules to increase your system’s potential. In fact, several
manufacturers leave open slots in their cases just so you have room to grow without having to sacrifice
other modules to make space—win-win!
BUCHLA ELECTRONIC MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS
|Fig. 1. Utilizing its newly released 200h
(half-size) modules, the Buchla LEM3
Spider includes MIDI-to-CV and CV-to-MIDI
modules so you can integrate the 252e
Polyphonic Rhythm Generator into any
other modular or MIDI system.
Buchla & Associates (now Buchla Electronic Musical Instruments or BEMI)
has offered modular systems for years. Although they are priced higher than
configurations of a similar module-count by other manufacturers, the company’s
founder, Don Buchla, will tell you that the feature density is much
higher in his designs, so you get what you pay for.
Nonetheless, to the uninitiated, the 200e System 7’s price tag of $29,999
is jaw dropping in a world where many Eurorack modules are cheap enough
to be impulse buys. Again, Mr. Buchla will point out that a serious concert
instrument, such as a pedal harp or violin, is similarly priced, and he’s right.
And there is no denying that a Buchla 200e has a unique sound and demands
dedication from the user if he or she plans to get the most out of it.
Until recently, the company’s intro system was the 200e System 1 ($5,299),
with a 261e Complex Waveform Generator (oscillator), a 292e Quad Dynamics
Manager, and 281e Quad Function Generator with the 225e MIDI Decoder/Preset Manager in a 201e-4 powered boat (the rackmountable case). From
there, the systems quickly increase in size, complexity, and price with the
portable 200e Skylab ($14,999) being the next step up.
At NAMM 2015, BEMI unveiled its new line of half-size, 200h-series
modules. Available in more-affordable packages, the h-series modules were
developed with interconnectivity in mind, allowing Eurorack or other modular
users to easily incorporate Buchla modules into their setup. (Besides having
a 4U panel height with banana jacks for signal flow, Buchla systems use a
1.2V/octave standard rather than the 1V/octave industry standard supported
by the majority of modular manufacturers).
Under the name LEM (a nod to the American space-exploration craft, the
Lunar Excursion Module), BEMI currently offers the LEM3 Spider ($2,999),
the LEM4 Snoopy ($2,499), the LEM4 218 Snoopy ($3,499), and the LEM7
Aquarius ($899). These systems use the LEM3 powered boat with external
supplies and are designed for desktop use.
With its 225h MIDI to CV Interface and 226h CV to MIDI interface modules,
the LEM3 Spider opens up external control possibilities via USB or DIN MIDI
connectors with 6 channels of CV to MIDI conversion and a patchbay converter
with common connector types (see Figure 1). By packaging these utility functions
with the new 252e Polyphonic Rhythm Generator, BEMI opens up this powerful
sequencer to exploitation by any DAW or modular system—nice!
The LEM4 is a basic 200e synth voice, with the 225h MIDI to CV interface
and 202h Utilities modules and the 261e Complex Waveform Generator
as the sound source. The newly released 292h Dual Lowpass Gate provides
characteristic Buchla color when paired here with the voltage controllable
(and cyclable) 2-stage EGs of the 281h Dual Function Generator. The LEM4
218 Snoopy system adds the LEM 218 capacitive touch keyboard, which also
provides 3.5mm and MIDI DIN I/O connectors for intersystem connectivity.
The LEM7 Aquarius is a base system ripe for expansion. It leaves enough
space for up to four additional 200h modules or two 200e modules to pair
with the included 225h MIDI to CV interface and 202h Utilities modules.
|Fig. 2. The Blacet Puma 15
includes enough modules
for a single MIDI-controlled
synthesizer voice, with
empty rack space to expand
your timbral palette.
Although FracRack—3U panels with 3.5mm or banana jacks and a ±15V power
supply—is not the dominant modular format, it has a loyal user base that is
particularly populated with DIYers. The module choices are far fewer than
in Eurorack, but there are plenty of interesting ones out there by companies
such as Metalbox, Wiard, Synthesis Technology/MOTM, PAiA, Bug Brand
and, of course, Blacet Research.
The only representative of the Frac format in this roundup, designer John
Blacet has offered an extensive line of modules in both kit and factory-built
form for decades. Overall, they’re well designed and affordable, and sound
great—I’m particularly fond of his VCO and Mini Wave (modules developed
in collaboration with Wiard›s Grant Richter) as well as the Filthy Filtre; but
you really can’t go wrong with any Blacet module.
I was particularly happy to see the company introduce a new pre-configured
system, the Puma 15 ($1,450). The setup holds 8 modules for a complete
synth voice—a VCO, the Filthy Filtre VCF, a 4-stage (ADSR) envelope generator,
the Super VCA, the Micro LFO, the SBM 3200 Splitter/Mixer/Voltage
Source, and a voltage controllable digital FX/Reverb module (see Figure 2).
The included MIDIverter 2910 MIDI-to-CV module lets you control your
Puma 15 from any MIDI controller or DAW, including the use of CC messages
to access its internal arpeggiator, LFO, and clock divider, among other
To house the modules, Blacet includes the new RAK-2 case (available in
box or rackmountable versions, each with a built-in bus board and power
supply). There is enough room in the rack for an additional 3 to 6 modules,
depending on how wide they are. (I›d suggest adding a second VCO and LFO
module with your initial order to create richer, more complex sounds.) Custom
configurations are also available by special order.
|Fig. 3. The Doepfer A-100BSS1
Basic Starter System 1 veers
away from the standard
subtractive-synth voice by
providing a complement of
modules that encourages
Doepfer has offered preconfigured A-100 Eurorack systems for years, making
it easy to get a musically useful system without having to navigate the enormous
variety of modules in its catalog. For example, if you want a basic synth
voice to play with a MIDI controller, there is the single-frame A-100BSM
Mini-System ($1,649), which includes two VCOs, a VCF, an EG, a VCA, a
mixer, a MIDI-to-CV/Gate/Sync interface, and several utility modules. It’s
housed in a 3U rack with power supply and comes with patch cables to get
The A-100BS1 Basic System 1 ($2,549) and A-100BS2 Basic System 2
($2,599) encompass 6U (either in a rack or a portable case) and provide a
more complex subtractive-synth voice when played in a traditional manner
(as well as a sophisticated sound-design tool when used more unconventionally).
The biggest difference between these configurations is that the Basic
Systems 2 includes a MIDI interface module, as well as a variable-waveform
LFO. Expansion systems and other configurations are suggested on the company’s
This year, Doepfer announced the A-100BSS1 Basic Starter System 1, with
an atypical collection of modules that was determined by user feedback,
particularly those who wanted to get away from the common synth-voice
architecture. In addition to the aforementioned MIDI interface, VCO, and
ADSR, the Basic Starter System 1 includes a dual VCA that works with audio
or control voltages, a noise source, a dual sample-and-hold module, the
VC Slew Limiter (inspired by the classic Serge VCS), the 2-pole multimode
Oberheim-inspired SEM filter, the new VCDLFO (voltage-controlled delay
low frequency oscillator with a VCA, VCLFO, and VC delay that can be used
together or independently), a polarizing mixer, a clock/trigger divider, and a
multiple. The modules can be mounted in the A-100LC3 Low Cost 3U case
(an unfinished wooden box that includes the bus board, power supply, and
external transformer) for €1,240 or an A-100G6 or P6 for €1,470.
Of course, by utilizing the MIDI interface you can control the system
from your DAW or a keyboard, allowing you to play it like a traditional synth,
though this particular module selection lends itself to more unusual uses.
Designer Dieter Doepfer hints that there are plans for “other such weird systems,”
|Fig. 4. The Make Noise
Shared System packs
a wealth of high-level
functionality into a
Make Noise has helped set the Eurorack world on fire by adding innovative
DSP-based modules such as the Echophon, René, Phonogene, and ErbeVerb
to their list of West Coast-inspired products. It has also been champions of
performance-based systems, which the René Cartesian sequencer and Pressure
Points capacitive pads are a testament to.
The company offers seven configurations, each of which is aimed at a specific
usage or aesthetic, while leaving space in the case for future expansion. Make
Noise systems are housed in tabletop-friendly wooden cases that lay flat, making
them ergonomically suitable for real-time sound manipulation. The case has
a detachable lid and uses an external AC power adapter. Make Noise designed
these instruments with travel (and carry-on baggage restrictions, in particular)
in mind. Cables are included with each system.
The Shared System ($3,695; black-and-gold version with ErbeVerb $4,500;
$3,530 without CV bus) is their most sophisticated setup; it was originally designed
as the base system for a series of 7" recordings by artists such as Richard
Devine, Alessandro Cortini, and Surachai (on Make Noise Records). Performability
is enhanced here by the inclusion of René and Pressure Points modules,
as well as the Phonogene and Echophon DSP processers for granularization,
echo, pitch shifting, and so forth. The setup is rounded out with the DPO dual
analog VCO, the Optomix dual lowpass gate, the Wogglebug and Maths voltage
generators, and the modDemix VCA/ring modulator.
Between the top and bottom rows is the CV bus, which includes a 1/4"
mono input with gain control; an AC-coupled 1/4" stereo output (fed by two
3.5mm inputs) with limiter and master volume control that is designed for
headphone use or feeding a P.A. when performing; and four mult channels.
Because Make Noise modules are feature rich, the Shared System will keep
you busy for a long time exploring its capabilities.
The 6U System 1 ($2,540) and System 2 ($2,530) contain many of the same
modules—the DPO, an Optomix, an Echophon, two Function CV generator/processors, and a mult—but differ in their control elements. The System 1
combines two Pressure Points modules with Brains for 3-channel analog
sequencer and touch-pad expressive capabilities, while the System 2 substitutes
a René for the Pressure Points/Brains combo and lends itself to very
complex improvisational sequencing work.
The three remaining systems come in 3U cases: the System 0 ($1,330) a
single synth voice featuring a DPO, Maths and Optomix; the System Concrète
($1,920) intended for processing external sounds using the Phonogene,
Echophon, Math, Wogglebug, and MMG multi-modefilter; and the Touch
System ($1,285), which puts two Pressure Points, Brains, and René into a
performance-skiff that can be used to drive any CV-controllable synthesizer.
|Fig. 5. The Moog Music System
35 holds 22 modules and is
shown here with the Sequencer
Complement B (on top) and the
Duophonic Keyboard controller.
Re-creating the original modules in Keith Emerson’s famous instrument
was no trivial task for Moog Music (nor is the $150,000 price
tag for prospective buyers). While many of us expected the company
to utilize its three years of R&D with a more affordable instrument, few
expected them to reissue three classic configurations along with a keyboard
and sequencer. But that’s exactly what they did at the 2015 NAMM show by
unveiling the System 55 ($35,000), the System 35 ($22,000), and the System
15 ($10,000), accompanied by the Sequencer Complement B ($8,500) and
Duophonie 61 Note Keyboard ($799).
While those prices will stagger the minds of people used to spending
far less for single-function modules, consider that buying an original Moog
modular and getting it refurbished will significantly exceed these prices. For
the musician, sound designer, or film composer who will settle for nothing
less than the Moog modular sound and who will actually use it in their work,
nothing can beat having a minty fresh instrument built by hand, and one that
won’t require constant maintenance. However, these are limited editions—55,
35, and 150 units respectively (as per their System number!)—so they’re likely
to become as hard to find as the originals.
The largest, the System 55, puts 36 modules into two hand-finished solid
walnut cabs. Among the collection you’ll find the 960 Sequential Controller,
the 914 Fixed Filter Bank, the 904A LPF and 904B HPF, the 903A Random
Signal Generator, five 911 EGs and five 902 VCAs. The oscillator configuration
includes a 921, six 921Bs, and two 921A Oscillator Drivers. The frequency
range of the classic 921 oscillator spans 0.01Hz to 40kHz, while the 901B goes
down to 1Hz—from LFO range to an octave above what humans can hear.
These VCOs offer serious modulation capabilities.
The 22-module System 35 includes five VCOs (one 921, four 921B), two
921A VCO drivers, three VCAs and EGs, the 923 Random Noise/Filter (HPF
and LPF) module, as well as the 907 Fixed Filter Bank and 903 Noise Generator
(Figure 5). The System 15 is Moog’s portable configuration, based around
three VCOs (a 921 and two 921Bs), a 921A, two VCAs and EGs, the Fixed Filter
Bank, Random Noise/Filter, and the 904A lowpass VCF.
Built into a cabinet that is sized to match the System 55 and 35, the Sequencer
Complement B includes a pair of 960 Sequential Controllers and 962
Sequential Switches, as well as a 961 Interface and 994 Dual Mulitples panel.
|Fig. 6. The Pittsburgh Modular Foundation
3.1 is a surprisingly powerful and featuredense
MIDI-controllable system in a
portable 3U case.
This year, Pittsburgh modular introduced four new packaged configurations
that provide classic synth features in a small amount of space and at a reasonable
price, often with room for expansion. All of these systems include the
new MIDI 3 MIDI-to-CV module, which provides monophonic, duophonic,
and argeggiator modes (with a variety of response types for each), tap tempo
clock, a gate clock divider, and a MIDI clock divider, among its many features.
The company’s flagship system, the Foundation 3.1 ($1,999), packs 13
modules into a highly portable 3U case (see Figure 6). In addition to MIDI
3, it holds a pair of oscillators (featuring the Blade waveform), a dual LFO, a
multimode filter, a lowpass gate, a pair of EG modules, a dual VCA, a mixer,
a mixer/attenuated mult module, the Toolbox processor (a personal favorite
of mine), and Outs (with a 1/4" stereo headphone jack and separate 1/4"
line outs). The stained wooden case has a removable lid and comes with bus
boards and power supply. A pack of 18 patch cables are included.
Move up to the Foundation 3.1+ ($2,249), and you get the exact same system
but in a 6U case, with the lower rack entirely empty and ready for you
to populate with additional modules. It also comes with 18 cables, but you’ll
need many more by the time that case is full.
The new System 10.1 ($649) pairs the MIDI 3 module with the Synthesizer
Box, a semi-modular synth voice that has normalled connections under
the panel that you can override using the patch panel. The Synthesizer Box
provides multiple waveform outputs (plus a sub-oscillator), a resonant lowpass
filter, a vactrol-based lopass (sic) gate, 4-stage EG, VCA, LFO, glide and
a mixer with a surprising amount of audio and CV I/O. The system also includes
the Mix Mult and Out modules, power supply, and 6 patch cables. The
System 10.1 is a surprisingly versatile and affordable system that is less than a
foot wide, so it’s perfect for the desk or gigging.
The System 10.1+ ($709) includes the above items but extends the case another
8" to provide room for additional modules. Again, you’ll need way more
than 6 cables, so budget accordingly.
|Fig. 7. Three different
filters—reminiscent of classic
ARP, Moog, and Yamaha
sounds—help give the Studio
Electronics Modstar Sensei
system a wide range of useful
colors, whether played from a
keyboard controller or a DAW.
Building on its outstanding line of
Boomstar table-top analog synthesizers,
Studio Electronics has
ventured into the world of Eurorack,
offering stand-alone modules
based around its popular filter, oscillator,
and VCA designs that feature
hand-matched transistors, discrete circuitry,
and through-hole construction.
To fill out the line with other essentials—a MIDI
module, LFOs, envelope generators, mixer, ring
modulator, mults, and stereo outputs—the company
partnered with Pittsburgh Modular. The
result is the Boomstar Modular Modstar series,
which gives you the chance to create a highly personalized
synth that has the full, rich sound of the
Boomstar line but with greater programmability
due to the wider availability of patch points.
Studio Electronics is launching the series with
two configurations that are housed in attractive
blue wooden cases and powered by an external
supply (provided). The Seito ($2,699) is a 3U
system consisting of two Oscillation oscillators;
the 4075 ARP 2600-style lowpass filter; the LFO
2 dual low-frequency oscillator; the Amp VCA;
the Shapers dual-ADSR envelope generator; the
Levels 6-channel mixer; Sci-Fi, which combines
a ring modulator, noise source, sample-and-hold,
and lag circuit; the MIDI3 interface offering an arpeggiator
and pairs of CV and gate outputs; a passive
2x4 mult; and Outs, which provides a stereo
1/4" headphone jack and individual 1/4" outputs
for each channel.
The Modstar Sensei system ($4,649) packs
substantially more power into its 6U case by providing
three filter modules—the 4075 (as above);
the 5089 Moog-style, 4-pole lowpass ladder-filter;
and the SE88, an 8-way, bi-directional, dual-input
version of the Yamaha CS-80-style resonant
multimode filter (see Figure 7). With three Oscillation
modules, a MIDI-synchronizable LFO
(culled from the Boomstar series), one each of the
Shapers and Levels modules, two Amp modules,
Outs, and two mults, the Sensei can be patched
into a seriously fat synth voice, or divided up into
two or three sounds, each with a radically different
Studio Electronics left some open rack space in
the Sensei box so you can quickly satisfy that need
for more sound shaping tools. But right off the
shelf, both instruments deliver exceptional sound
quality whether driven from a MIDI keyboard, a
DAW, or an analog sequencer. And if you already
have a desktop Boomstar synth (a semi-modular
instrument with CV and gate inputs), either of
these setups would make a suitable companion.
|Fig. 8. The Box-66 from Synthesizers.com has
walnut sides and sports six VCOs, two VCAs, four
EGs, and two Moog-style sequencers, among
its many modules. As with the company’s other
systems, you can alter the module complement in
the Box-66 when you order.
Roger Arrick’s Synthesizers.com has been steadily
keeping the 5U flame alive for nearly two decades
by selling a full range of modules, keyboards, controllers,
and accessories direct to musicians. The
company also offers a dizzying array of systems
that divides into five categories—Studio, Rack,
Portable, Box, and Entry. Nonetheless, buyers are
encouraged to modify any of the configurations to
suit their needs, or to come up with their own personalized
I am particularly impressed by the Entry system
($1,705 including shipping, cabinet, power supply,
and cables), which is based around an affordable
purchase plan where, for $155 a month, you accumulate
one piece at a time over an 11-month period.
Furthermore, the PSU will power 66 module
spaces, so it’s ready to expand when you are.
There are nine configurations under the Box11
category, ranging from the desktop-sized Box-11
($1,640) starter system with a VCO, VCA, VCF, EG,
and MIDI module to the Box-66 ($9,212), a 6-oscillator
system with two Moog-style sequencers,
MIDI interface, two VCAs, four EGs, a ring mod,
a mixer, and lots more (see Figure 8).
The Studio systems are housed in solid walnut
cabinets and come in five configurations,
from the modest 3-VCO single-cabinet System 22
($2,984.50) to the 5-level System 110 ($14,826.50),
which packs ten VCOs, two sequencers, two mixers,
two reverbs, ring mod, and plenty of everything
Similarly, there are numerous Portable systems,
which are built into vinyl-covered cabinets
with handles and road-worthy hardware. Prices range from $1,674.50 to $10,686.50, with module
choices similar to the Studio and Box systems. The
Rack systems are, as you would expect, designed
to fit into 19" 5U frames, holding 8 module units
per level. You provide the housing, which saves
you money over the other systems that include
cases and cabinets.
THE HARVEST MAN
|Fig. 9. In the Iron Curtain electronics system, The harvestman brings back the sound of the soviet-made Polivoks analog synth but with greater functionality and modulation capabilities.
A particularly unique addition to the scene is the Iron Curtain Electronics System from The Har- vestman ($2,000 plus shipping direct). Over the last few years, the Harvestman’s Scott Jaeger has re-introduced Eurorack modules based on the indi- vidual elements of the Polivoks, the first Soviet-era voltage-controlled monosynth, in cooperation with its original designer, Vladimir Kuzmin. The Poli- voks is well regarded for its characteristically brazen timbres when pushed hard and The Harvestman’s modules emphasize that quality by using NOS (new old-stock) Soviet-era parts in order to maintain the unique performance specs of the filter, oscillator, modulator, VCA, and EG. By endowing these reis- sues with additional modulation capabilities and attenuverters, Jaeger helps the Iron Curtain extend beyond what the original keyboard could hope to reach in terms of timbre (see Figure 9).
The Iron Curtain includes the Polivoks R-1982 resonant 2-pole filter, which offers simultaneous lowpass and bandpass outputs, two inputs with a mixer, CV inputs for modulation, and the ability to get some fairly pungent timbres—this VCF has personality.
The system also includes a pair of Polivoks R-1983 VCG saw-core oscillators, with linear and exponential FM inputs, an octave switch, and separate PWM, triangle, and sawtooth outputs. The VCG is also very colorful, and the system benefits greatly by including two.
For control, two VCA/EG modules are includ- ed, replicating the setup in the original Polivoks
keyboard. Here, the 4-stage (ADSR) EG includes a delay parameter for the attack and release por- tions, while the VCA includes CV inputs with at- tenuverters. The EG is normalled to the VCA for convenience.
For modulation, the HMR1987 provides an LFO, a noise source, and sample-and-hold, each available independently as well as normalled to- gether. Also included is The Harvestman’s Lider Suboctave Divider module, based on a popular effects processor from the USSR. It provides controls for wet/dry mix and Stability, that latter of which bypasses the input filter for the funda- mental frequency detector and results in unpre- dictable behavior when feed complex signals.
The remaining two modules that round out the system are not part of the Polivoks legacy: The Model 1123 King Slender is a slew limiter with advanced mixing and portamento func- tionality, including a 3-input mixer (with mute switches for two of the inputs), and independent controls for the rise and fall parameters; and a mult module with a discrete attenuator input.
The Iron Curtain system is housed in an an- gled Monorocket (monorocket.blogspot.com) case with a lid, making it ergonomically practical for performance; the flat top provides a surface for another module rack or your external proces- sors and stomp boxes. The system is powered by a Make Noise Mini-PWR system with flying rib- bon cables, and the case provides empty slots for enhancing the system with additional modules. Wall-wart power supply, patch cables, and quick- start sheets for each module are included.