Buchla & Associates Series 200e Synth Review

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Fig. 1: The Buchla 200e uses banana cables for CVs and pulses, and so-called 1/8-inch jacks for audio rather than 3.5mm.

It''s been five years since Buchla & Associates re-entered the synth market with the 200e, a modular system inspired by the classic 200 Series Electric Music Box. Surpassing other hardware modulars in functionality and price, this instrument is in a class all its own, offering a rich environment for musicians who want hands-on control over a patchable synth that offers more than the VCO/VCF/VCA norm.

For this review, I tested a system containing the latest modules. But rather than describe each one, I''ll give my overall impression of what it''s like to use the 200e as a system (see Fig. 1). For a closer look at the modules, including the new 223e Tactile Input Port, visit emusician.com where you''ll find video and audio clips.

The 200e was controversial when it launched in 2005 because many analog-synth fans hoped for a clone of the original ''70s-era system. Clearly, it was not.

Although there is a similarity in name and function between the 200 and 200e modules, the latter uses a hybrid of digital and analog technology. The surface-level patching is analog but digitized internally to facilitate preset storage and retrieval. However, the sound generators—259e Twisted Waveform Generator and 261e Complex Waveform Generator ($1,600 each)—employ digital techniques to create the waveforms. Buchla wanted the 200e to offer the experience of an analog modular but with modern features. In that regard, the 200e is a success.

To begin with, the powered cases ($300 to $2,500, depending on module capacity) offer internal data busing, which routes and distributes incoming MIDI messages that are translated into analog pulses and CVs by the 225e MIDI/USB Decoder Module ($1,400). That alone lets you control oscillators, envelopes, and dynamics without patch cables, as you would with a semimodular synth. With four buses dedicated to MIDI input (one MIDI channel per bus), you can configure the 200e as a 4-voice polyphonic or multitimbral synth, depending on your module count. (The 225e also offers three note-based CV outputs per bus—pitch, velocity, and note on—and six pairs of CV outputs dedicated to MIDI control messages.)

More importantly, the lower portion of the 225e is an independent preset manager (also available as a portion of the 206e Mixer/Preset Manager, $1,050) that allows you to store and recall knob and button settings for each module, adding modern convenience to a classic interface. Of course, the sound you hear depends on what you''ve patched up. Changing the cables while using a pulse to scroll through presets gave me unexpected sounds that were very satisfying. Compact Flash cards are used to save patches and install firmware updates in a slot behind the panel. A specific power-up sequence loads the update.

Each module is multifunctional, making the 200e deeply rewarding to use. It also explains why Buchla modules seem expensive compared to other systems. But when you compare the density of features per 200e module to other brands, the playing field looks more even.

A good example is the 291e Triple Morphing Filter ($1,750), which offers three independent filters that can be used in parallel, with individual control over the bandwidth, frequency, and amplitude of each. You can store eight parameter settings per filter, then cycle through them in various ways, morphing between the “snapshots” you''ve saved. It''s a powerful and enjoyable module with which to work.

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Fig. 2: The 296e Spectral Processor''s LED arrays are touch-sensitive for setting levels.

Even more exciting is the new 296e Spectral Processor ($4,600), which offers 16 bandpass filters (each with 18dB/octave cut-off slopes) and VCAs meant for vocoding and complex timbre processing (see Fig. 2). In addition to being able to transfer the spectra of one signal to another, you can morph between two EQ curves using CVs, or split it into two 8-band filters for stereo effects. Each frequency band has an envelope follower with CV output and VCA with CV input. The LED array on each band is touch-sensitive; just drag your finger vertically to set output levels (see Web Clip 1). There''s nothing else like the 296e in a hardware synth.

Modulation is as important as filtering on the 200e. Consequently, the signal generators and many processors offer audio-rate modulation inputs to increase the spectral content of a signal. The frequency range of the 259e and 261e tops out at 7kHz, but you can use FM to create upper partials. And because both modules have built-in modulation oscillators and CV waveshaping, it''s easy to create rich, complex timbres.

Two essential 200e modules are the 281e Quad Function Generator ($800) and 292e Quad Dynamics Manager ($900). Designed to sit next to each other so you can connect them with shorting bars, they fill the role of EG and filter/gate, respectively, and both are on the system''s MIDI bus. The 281e, a classic Buchla module, offers four sections, each of which can be used as a 2-stage EG or LFO. Best of all, the sections can be linked to create complex envelopes.

The 4-channel 292e brings out a woody, plucked timbre that is characteristically Buchla. Each channel can work discretely as a gate, lowpass filter, or combined lowpass gate. It''s one of my all-time favorite modules.

Although you can take signals directly from any audio output, the 227e System Interface ($1,950) is a must. In addition to the array of I/O (rear-panel ¼-inch outputs, an XLR input with preamp, and a 4-channel submixer), it offers voltage-controllable quadraphonic panning of four discrete inputs. The panner alone makes every patch come alive, even when working in stereo. You could create a spectacular audio processor in a 6-panel powered boat ($700) with a 281e, a 292e, a 227e, a 266e Source of Uncertainty ($850) for generating randomized voltages and a 285e Frequency Shifter/Balanced Modulator ($1,400).

The 200e was designed to be an open-ended sonic tool kit, much like Cycling ''74 Max/MSP or Clavia Nord Modular. It surpasses other hardware modulars in terms of flexibility, particularly if you use its MIDI bus and preset manager. And no one else makes a sequencing module as sophisticated as the 250e Dual Arbitrary Function Generator ($1,700; see Web Clip 2).

Although one could argue that soft synths offer similar patching and processing functionality (and more of it for less money), a computer app with a generic hardware controller doesn''t come close to the hands-on experience that the 200e provides. More importantly, if the build quality of the original 200 Series is any indication (I have a ''70s system that I still use), the 200e will serve you decades longer than any PC-and-software system currently available.

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Fig. 3: The 223e Tactile Input Port module

Buchla''s influence in the field of electronic music stretches beyond the fact that he developed one of the first commercially available voltage-controllable synthesizers. One should not overlook his developments in capturing and translating musical gesture in electronic music with devices like the Thunder, the Lightning, the Piano Bar, and the Marimba Lumina (just to name a few of his projects).

The 200e successfully combines both sound generation and gestural control into an instrument that can be uniquely configured to fit ones musical needs. The system''s MIDI support allows you to use any kind of controller you want, but Buchla also offers the 223e Tactile Input Port ($2,550), which combines a gestural control interface resembling the Buchla Thunder and an updated, multipurpose module. Its close cousin, the 222e Multi Dimensional Kinesthetic Input Port ($2,850), includes a module that can track a pair of wireless rings in 3D space. However, in my interview with Buchla last year, he noted that very few people use the rings. Consequently, he created the 223e, which swaps out the wireless functions for arpeggiating capabilities (see Fig. 3).

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Fig. 4: A peek behind the 223e. Notice that there are two cables attached to the module. The upper one is the power connector, and the lower one is for busing signals. Connecting them is a snap.

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Fig. 5: The tactile sensor is designed to give you a comfortable playing surface that tracks most gestures that a hand can make.

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Fig. 6: My son playing the tactile sensor with all of his fingers.

The 223e''s arpeggiator can run from one of three clock sources: and internal one, an external pulse, or MIDI (which wasn''t implemented on the review unit). The five patterns—rising, falling, triangle, random, and spiral—can be transmitted over any of the four internal buses directly to the oscillators, the 281e, and the 292e, just as you would expect (see Fig. 4). But you also have access to four sets of signals from the module itself—CVs for pulse, pitch, and location/pressure/impact, as well as a second programmable CV. The voltage levels are programmable, and all of the settings—including transpositions, polyphony setting, fades times for arpeggiator—can be recalled. This is important because you have to program the behavior of each strip and button on the control surface, or tactile sensor as it''s called in the manual (see Fig. 5). This is very time consuming. Expect to do some experimenting to figure out ways to take advantage of all the output possibilities. It is well worth the trouble.

The control surface is ergonomically designed to accommodate all 10 fingers, with a row of buttons on top and down the middle, and sliders and pads below on either side (see Fig. 6). The two larger hexagons, labeled R and S, serve as X/Y pads and have their own outputs on the module.

The tactile sensor can be mounted in a powered case (it takes up three module units) or in a flat, wooden remote case ($150). The spatial sensor connects to the back of the 222e module with a ribbon strip. If you get the wooden case and have a large system, be sure to ask for a long ribbon connector so you have enough length to set the spatial sensor in front of your system. The review unit''s cable was so short, the control surface had to rest on the middle row of modules.

Like other modular systems on the market, the Buchla CV range is 0V to 10V. The pulses are 10V at onset and 5V when held. However, 200e CV pitch quantization does not conform to the standards used in the current modular synth market, primarily because Buchla''s instruments predate the standards. While modern analog synths adhere to either 1V/octave or Volt-to-Hertz, Buchla uses 1.2V/octave, which conveniently translates to 0.1V/semitone. Consequently, you''ll have to find a way to scale CVs if you want to integrate another manufacturer''s modules into a patch.

Another important difference is that audio and control signals are separated in a Buchla system. Timing and control voltages are patched using banana cables and, because they are stackable, you can easily send a pulse or CV from a single to source to several destinations without using a mult module. In fact, working with banana cables is a lot of fun and makes it very easy to create complex patches.

The banana jacks on the modules are color coded by function—red for pulse outputs; orange for pulse inputs; black and gray for CV inputs; and blue, green, and purple for CV outputs. This simplifies patching quite a bit, which really helps in a system this complex because you can see at a glance the function of each jack.

Audio is sent through so-called Tini-Jax connectors (commonly called 1/8-inch), which are slightly larger than the standard 3.5mm connectors on Eurorack/Frac rack synths and portable media players. Nonetheless, a couple of 3.5mm jacks are used in the Buchla 200e system for stereo headphone outputs on the 227e mixer interface ($1,950) and 207e mixer/preamplifier ($900) modules.

Because most audio devices use 3.5mm jacks, connecting a media player to one of the 200e audio inputs requires you to jam one end of the Tini-Jax plug into the smaller output of your media player, potentially damaging its output jack over time. Buchla packs a set of cables in each system, including audio cables with the correct connector size. The perfect cable to add to this would be one with a Tini-Jax plug on one end and a 3.5mm or 1/4-inch plug on the other.

The 200e mixers include mic inputs and preamps, as does the 230e Triple Envelope Tracker ($1,600), which houses three envelope followers that derive a pulse and CV from each audio input. In addition to serving as an audio source for processing, the mic inputs can be used to trigger events—very useful. The mic preamps on the 230e and 207e offer phantom power, though it's in the range of +35V rather than the standard +48V.

The trick with a system as complex as the 200e is to let it guide you as you master the functions of each module. Unlike the straightforward signal path (VCO/VCF/VCA) of the typical analog synth that most people use to create leads, pads, and basses, the 200e is more of a compositional tool that will lead you into interesting places if you listen and follow its lead. By doing so, you''ll eventually master its idiosyncrasies and the time you spend on it will pay huge dividends.

Gino Robair is the former editor of EM.

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Click on the Product Summary box above to view the Series 200e product page.