Modular analog synthesis is alive and well in the 21st century.
There was a time when a synthesizer was a collection of modules filled with dozens of knobs, jacks, and a few blinking LEDs, without a programmable preset in sight. The sound-generating and sound-controlling devices were separate units connected by patch cords. Assembling a modular synth system and a sound required considerable knowledge and cash. Consequently, thirty-odd years ago, synthesis was an undertaking with limited appeal.
A modular-synthesizer manufacturer based in the United Kingdom (hence the spellings of analogue and synthesiser in the company name and products), Analogue Systems produces a variety of modules in the Integrator line, ranging from oscillators and filters to controllers, effects, and signal converters. The Sorcerer (spelled Sorceror on the back of the keyboard case) is the company's chassis-and-keyboard combination, which you can fill with modules of your choice (see Fig. 1).
ANALOG HEAVEN OR HELL?
Modular synths are in vogue, but they still require technical chops and sizable chunks of change. Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, for example, uses an Analogue Systems RS8000 system and RS200 sequencer that costs $4,000. Even at that price, it plays only one note at a time.
The modular-synth market remains highly specialized for good reasons. Never mind the prospect of building your own sound, which may be terrifying to a generation of musicians that has grown up on the preset, polyphonic, instant-gratification fast track: using an Analogue Systems synth requires that you build an instrument from factory-assembled components.
The Sorcerer performs in glorious mono, and the only available memory, quite literally, is yours. To replicate a sound in the future, you have two options: remember how you created it or write down every patch connection and parameter setting.
I am not a modular-synth fanatic, nor have I ever owned such an instrument. Nonetheless, I have played most modular synth models ever made. I grew up using semimodulars (such as the Korg MS20) which have some sort of prepatched configuration behind the scenes. The first synth I owned was an ARP Odyssey, an analog monosynth with no patch memory. Still, something is undeniably exciting about creating a sound that's probably unique. The Sorcerer is a grown-up's toy, to be sure, but if you have the money and the inclination, you're in for a real treat.
IN THE BEGINNING
The Sorcerer's substantial chassis is made of American walnut. It can house modules with a width of 168 horizontal pitch (HP). (One HP is 5.08 mm, or 0.2 inches, wide; the average Analogue Systems module is 12 HP.) The Sorcerer features a 49-note monophonic keyboard with a controller module, power supply, x-y joystick module, and MIDI I/O (see Fig. 2).
The RS220 self-centering, spring-loaded joystick operates smoothly and has separate range controls for the x- and y-axes (see Fig. 3). Each axis has two output jacks, letting you set up a range of real-time-controllable modulation routings.
The RS330 controller module determines how the keyboard routes control signals to modules. Five control-voltage (CV) outputs are the Sorcerer's main links, in addition to two Trigger outputs and two Gate outputs. A three-position toggle switch transposes pitch through two octaves. Portamento controls include a Fast/Slow knob and a toggle switch for Off, On, and S-shot (single-triggering).
The Sorcerer's chassis design places the modules at an almost-45-degree angle for comfortable viewing and patching. It has a flat 4-inch top and a 3-inch ledge between the modules' base and the keyboard. The instrument's nature necessitates many loose cords dangling about, and the ledge doesn't quite take up all the slack. I found it rather unnerving to play the Sorcerer with my hands in a cat's cradle of patch chords half the time; when it comes to performing on a modular synth, perhaps that's indicative of the lack of emphasis on playing the keyboard.
Understandably, then, the keyboard has a light action, though the Sorcerer's overall construction is reassuringly solid. That's good, because at this point, you're already in for almost $1,400, and you have yet to add oscillators, filters, envelope generators, amplifiers, or signal processors.
Not only does Analogue Systems produce more than 30 modules, but you can mix and match with Doepfer's giant collection of A-100 modules and modules from Analogue Solutions. The expansion potential is a major bonus for consumers who might otherwise feel trapped buying from just one manufacturer. The unit supplied for review came with ten Analogue Systems modules that represent the complete product line. However, even with the modules in place, you're still confronted by a totally dumb piece of hardware until you start creating a sound by linking modules with the patch cords.
A MULTITUDE OF MODULES
Analogue Systems' RS-series modules appear more academic than exciting. Mounted on brushed aluminum panels, the knobs are smooth and solid. Patch cords are plugged into ⅛-inch minijacks; they make good connections most, but not all, of the time.
Each module is slotted into the custom Sorcerer rack, fastened with four Phillips screws, and internally connected by a simple 16-pin ribbon cable. Even if you're more musically than technically oriented, installing modules is easy.
The Sorcerer comes with a rat's nest of patch cords of varying lengths. The color-coded cords — blue for frequencies and clocking controls; gray for DC CV and control functions; green for wave shapes; white for audio signals; yellow for resonance, slew rates, and pans; and red for envelopes — correspond to the knobs' color coding, which is a smart move. However, that is only a suggested usage: any cable can be used in any jack.
Oscillator. The oscillator lies at the heart of any analog synthesizer, defining its sound and operation style. The RS90 ($129) is Analogue Systems' primary sound source; two were supplied in my instrument. I want three things from an oscillator — stability, timbral richness, and flexibility — and the RS90 didn't disappoint.
The RS90 generates variable sawtooth and pulse waveforms. Using the dedicated rotary control, you can adjust the sawtooth from ramp-down sawtooth to triangle wave to ramp-up sawtooth. The pulse wave's control knob takes the signal from 0 percent narrow (which Analogue Systems calls leading pulse) to 0 percent wide (trailing pulse), with a square wave in the center position. Around the sawtooth knob's central triangle position is a wide band that doesn't change the sound much. Also, a sizable dead area is at both ends of the pulse-wave knob's spectrum, making the range of basic tones not quite as vast as I first thought.
The shapes of the sawtooth and pulse waveforms are voltage controllable, which is a cool feature. With a Sync In jack providing a means to hard-sync one audio oscillator to another, and highly sophisticated filtering available further down the line, the Sorcerer is full of potential for timbral richness and character.
You can tune oscillator frequency in three ranges (Wide, Normal, or -2 Octave) using a tiny three-position toggle switch and the frequency-control knob. Wide is unbelievably wide, providing a theoretical range of 0.3 Hz to 17 kHz (the low end is way below earshot, so you can use the RS90 as an LFO). Normal range varies pitch by an interval of approximately a fifth, and -2 Octave transposes the pitch down as much as two octaves.
The Sorcerer uses the 1V-per-octave standard used by Moog, Sequential Circuits, and other analog-synth manufacturers; consequently, connecting the few instruments that use the hertz-to-voltage system (such as the older Korg and Yamaha mono synths) doesn't produce conventional musical scales.
Although I can't find fault with the RS90 on a technical level, for the average musician, its approach is more purist than practical. The RS90 lacks LEDs to indicate whether a signal is incoming (or outgoing), and the tuning controls aren't especially helpful for making exact calibrations. It also has no broad- and fine-tuning knobs. On a positive note, the pitch stability is rock-solid.
But if the Sorcerer is used by people who know their way around a modular system and aren't looking for instant, lock-tight results, the RS90 offers a professional and reliable range of oscillator power and potential. For just $10 more, the RS95 module offers most of the same features but with the addition of a sine-wave output.
Filters. The exceptionally good RS110 multimode filter module ($119) is the system's best component. It has two audio inputs with individual level controls. You can route the inputs to four parallel resonant filters: lowpass, highpass, bandpass, and notch. You don't have to select among the four filter types, though, because four outputs make them simultaneously available; that approach is extremely clear and direct. A shared frequency-cutoff control is the only limit to this flexible and practical arrangement.
Resonance has its own control input and output. In addition to simply applying resonance, you can divert its normal path through another module (voltage-controlled amplifier [VCA], delay, and so on). That unusual and perhaps unique feature opens the door to all manner of resonance effects. Fully in the clockwise position, the resonance knob can make the filter self-oscillate, generating a sine wave that can serve as a pitched audio source.
Best of all, the filters sound superb. They're sharp (with 24 dB-per-octave slopes on lowpass and highpass settings), fat, and Moog-like. The RS110 provides interesting options, from the unusual insert point in the resonance loop to variable CV control of filter tracking.
For deviant filter effects, the RS120 Comb Filter ($119) might be what you need. Based on an analog delay, the comb filter's fundamental frequency is regulated by varying the delay time, usually by voltage control. The RS120 has two audio-signal inputs and a single Delay Time that ranges from 2.5 to 25 ms, resulting in a cutoff frequency from 40 to 4,000 Hz. Two CV inputs with Level controls are provided to vary Delay Time. You can turn up the Resonance control to make the filter self-oscillate.
The RS120 sounds cheap, but in the nicest sort of way. It can produce ringing, slightly ghostly, and fuzzy effects, and it's great for lo-fi sounds.
LFO. Although the RS90 oscillator module can function as an LFO, you will probably want a dedicated LFO. The Analogue Systems RS80 VC-LFO ($119) operates from very low frequencies (the spec says one cycle every 50 seconds) to growl-producing, rapid-modulation speeds. In addition to the RS80's manual Frequency control, you can control its rate by sending a CV into the linear-CV input jack. Surprisingly, unlike the system's audio-oscillator module, the CV input adheres to the unusual hertz-to-voltage system noted previously.
The RS80 can generate four waveforms simultaneously: sine, triangle, square, and rising or falling sawtooth. Each has an output-level control, except the sine wave, which outputs a ±5V signal at the LFO frequency.
A Reset In jack lets you reinitialize the LFO waveform by applying a second waveform to its input. If the signal is a mid- or high-frequency periodic waveform from a voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO), it acts as a sync input. A status LED indicates LFO frequency.
Amplifiers and envelopes. Although a VCA is essential for hearing the results of your labors, VCAs are hardly the stuff of dreams. The RS180 ($87) offers two audio inputs, two CV inputs (logarithmic and linear inputs are included), and a single audio output, all with separate level controls. Transparency is the key to a usable amplifier, and the RS180 attenuates and amplifies the signal without altering its character.
Envelope generators (EGs) are much more complex than amplifiers because they govern the shape and variety of sounds. The RS60 ($119) is a classic four-stage ADSR EG that offers nine mode combinations. It has two toggle switches for changing modes — one for switching between Hold and One Shot and the other for Auto Repeat and Gated Repeat options — that work in tandem.
The RS60's flexible nature makes it possible to create a variety of rhythmic effects that form the basis of much current trance, dance, and techno music. Although I didn't figure out exactly why each effect occurred, I had enormous fun switching among the modes and clipping or inverting the signal with the Attack and Decay knobs. The envelope's attack time ranges from a minimum of 0.5 ms (very fast) to a maximum of 10 seconds (quite ample). The decay and release times range from 2.5 ms to 20 seconds, so creating extremely long sweeps is a breeze.
Additional modules. Analogue Systems produces an impressive range of modules (for more information, check out the Analogue Systems Web site). The review instrument included the RS160 4-input-by-1-output Mixer ($68); the RS40 Noise/S&H Oscillator ($119), which generates white noise (unless you apply filtering to change its color) and features a sample-and-hold circuit with a square-wave LFO; and the RS170 Dual 5-Way Multiple ($44), for sending one signal to several destinations simultaneously. Unfortunately, the RS200 ($600) three-by-eight-step analog sequencer module wasn't provided with the review unit.
MIDI IN ACTION
Even to an instrument that conjures a different time and space the way that the Sorcerer does, MIDI is a fact of life. The Sorcerer converts MIDI data into control voltages — Aftertouch, Velocity, and Control Change 1 (Modulation), 11 (Expression), and 12 (Effect 1) — which are sent from the keyboard's controller module to the sound-producing modules. The active MIDI channel is selected by an unusual back-panel switch that requires a screwdriver.
When I triggered the Sorcerer from an external MIDI keyboard, I noticed some slackness in the response compared with playing the Sorcerer keyboard. If you were to control the Sorcerer with a MIDI sequencer, you could offset the sequencer track to compensate for the Sorcerer's sluggish response.
TAKING THE PLUNGE
If you're in the market for a modular synthesizer, the Sorcerer is cost-effective compared with a vintage instrument and much more reliable. If you've wet your feet with modular synthesis and want to dive in headfirst, the Sorcerer is a great way to immerse yourself, especially given its open-minded approach to adding modules from other manufacturers. If you're a more typical synth user and feel the urge to acquire a modular instrument, think long and hard before making the hefty investment of time and money that such instruments require.
The Sorcerer certainly sounds cool, and its flexibility is astounding. However, the restraints of using a monophonic synth with limited MIDI capabilities and no programmable memory make modular synthesis a sport for a musical minority — just as it has always been.
Julian Colbeck used to be a musician, but he's better now. As head of Keyfax Software, he prefers to enjoy music rather than infest the world's stages as he did for 25 years.
Sorcerer analog modular synthesizer $1,395 (without modules)
FEATURES4.0EASE OF USE3.0AUDIO QUALITY4.0VALUE4.0
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Flexible design. High-quality construction. Excellent audio specifications. Superb owner's manual. Capacity to mix and match modules from other manufacturers.
CONS: Minimal MIDI support. Less-than-reliable minijacks, including the audio output. Awkward to play when patch cords trail over the keyboard.
Sound Engineanalog subtractive synthesisKeyboard49-note, unweighted; transmits neither Velocity nor PressurePolyphony1-noteROM/RAM Programs0/0Analog Audio Output(1) ⅛" minijack (with RS180 VCA)MIDI PortsIn; Out; ThruOptional Sequencer3×8-step (RS200)Optional Effectsreverb/chorus (RS310); spring reverb (RS320); Bode-style frequency shifter (RS240)Dimensions35" (L) × 9" (H) × 16" (D)Weight38 lbs.