A MOMENT WITH JOHN McENTIRE
Producer/engineer/percussionist John McEntire is well known for his sophisticated use of analog synthesizers for audio processing with bands such as Tortoise, Stereolab and the Fiery Furnaces. (Read his EM feature interview.)
Tortoise''s latest release, Beacons of Ancestorship (Thrill Jockey), is chock full of synth textures and unusual processing. I recently had a chance to ask McEntire a couple of questions about how he works with modulars in the studio.
What types of analog synth modules do you typically use for processing individual tracks from your DAW?
Comparators are fun and have two main uses: turning any incoming audio into pure square waves or generating triggers (typically from drums and percussion) for other sounds patched on the modular. I use wave multipliers (especially the Blacet Mini Wave) for intense, harmonically rich distortion.
Ring modulators are great, obviously, even when using LFOs as a carrier for tremolo-type effects. The frequency shifter is a staple of mine, especially on drums. But filters, in all their various flavors, are probably the most commonly employed. One subset of that would be the fixed-filter bank, which is very interesting when used for spectral panning.
A number of modules have counterparts in outboard gear, such as phase shifters, delays and so on, but it's interesting to build patches that integrate those elements within rather than adding them as a sweetener at the end of a chain.
How do you deal with gain staging? Are there any issues you have to deal with?
Not really. Everything seems to interface quite well.
Do you use MIDI or a pulse (from one of the DAW tracks) to drive things like envelopes, or to trigger events, or for sync with time-based processing?
I will usually write in MIDI notes and those will be sent to a MIDI-to-CV converter. I find it useful to use analog sequencers in parallel with the DAW, for controlling filter parameters, for example. I'm really looking forward to MOTU's Volta to address this application and many others.
When you do outboard filtering or processing, do you run the processing signal through an amp (essentially reamping it) or do you go directly back into the DAW?
Usually I will not run the signal through an amp. And even if that is desired, the return will be printed direct and then reamped at a later stage.
MODULE SIZE AND SHAPE
Although there is no standard size for analog synth modules, there are some common formats. Knowing which systems fit these particular sizes will help you assemble the module configuration that best suits your needs.
Most of the modules in this article conform to the international rack standard in height and width. The standard horizontal rack width is 19 inches, but individual modules come in a wide variety of widths. That means you will have to do some organizing if you want to fill a rackspace effectively.
There are several standards when it comes to module height. One vertical rack unit (U) is 1.75 inches. Original Moog modules were a standard height of 8.75 inches or 5U. The modules from Encore Electronics, Oakley, Synthesis Technology and Synthesizers.com fit that profile. PAiA's Fractional Rack (Frac Rac) system is 5.25 inches or 3U tall. Modules from PAiA and Blacet Research fit that configuration.
The Euro subrack (Eurorack) standard is also 3U tall, but the mounting rails are somewhat different. Modules from Analogue Solutions, Analogue Systems and Doepfer fit that standard. In the Euro subrack, the 19-inch width is divided into smaller units known as HP (Horizontal Ppitch) or TE (from the German for “parts per measure”). Each HP/TE unit is 5.08 mm or 0.2 inches. Modules come in sizes ranging from 4 to 72 HP/TE. A 19-inch rack holds 84 HP/TE.
If you're planning to mix modules from different companies within a 3U rack, note that the position of the screws on the front panel of the modules may differ slightly from company to company. That is especially true if you're mixing modules from European and U.S. manufacturers. Additionally, you''ll need to address power supply connector issues, but most manufacturers offer cables that work with each rack format.
If you have any additional concerns regarding compatibility issues about a module you want to add to your rack, share them with the manufacturer of the modules you are purchasing. They will give you advice on how to mount the module and power it up. It is in the company's best interest to make you a satisfied customer because they know that you will be back for more once you get a taste of modular synthesis.