One the thing that is difficult when building a modular synth is creating an instrument that is performable, where you have the same intuitive, real-time control over the system that you would get from, say, a well-designed keyboard. Clearly, that means, from the beginning, choosing modules that were designed with live performance in mind.
This is something that differentiates the Varigate 8+ ($549) and Voltage Block ($349) from most other Eurorack-format sequencers. When Malekko created these modules, it had a clear idea of what was needed in a pair of sequencers that were destined for use during live performances and improvisations. And not only is each of them powerful on its own, when used together, they offer a level of functionality that makes it even easier to create compelling music from scratch.
Fig. 1. The Varigate 8+ puts a wealth of gate and CV sequencing features behind a 26HP panel.
Although it shares the same name as the original Varigate 4 (see the review at emusician.com), the Varigate 8+ doesn’t simply double the number to 8 channels and 16 steps: It adds a range of features specifically designed for real-time beat programming (Figure 1).
Of course, the deeper you go into the performance features, the more button combinations you’ll need to learn. But having immediate control over each step in each channel—not to mention the ability to Copy patterns, save up to 100 Presets, store Presets into one of 10 Banks, program them into a Song, and Mute entire pages, all on-the-fly—is worth putting in the extra practice time.
And if you think gate-sequencing lends itself to a robotic feel, you’re in for a treat with this module. For each of the steps in each channel, you can add up to 16 repeats, delay the step by differing amounts (with selectable randomization functionality), set the probability level that each step will occur, add glide, and adjust the pulse width. Those tools alone can breathe new life into a sequence, and the horizontal sliders provide a remarkably intuitive way to adjust parameter settings in a performance context.
In addition, you can alter the subdivision in each sequence, as well as a sequence’s length and playback direction (forward, reverse, pendulum, random). You can even set the direction of the Song sequence in a similar manner.
The Random input, which accepts a gate signal, is used for randomizing patterns, while a gate entering the Freeze input holds the parameter randomization. To further instill an organic quality into your performance, you can add various levels of top-level randomization—from dialing in the probability levels of a Preset of gate patterns and sequences to adding various degrees of indeterminacy to an entire Bank you’ve created.
Another useful performance function is the Live Gate Record mode. This allows you to create a rhythmic pattern by tapping one of the Gate buttons rather than using a slider for programming.
The Varigate 8+ includes a pair of quantized, 1V/octave CV outputs for controlling the pitch of an oscillator, the frequency cutoff of a filter, and so on. For each step in a CV sequence, you can set the pitch and an amount of glide. The CV outputs can also be quantized to a key, or to a scale that you create using a combination of button presses and slider moves while viewing the keyboard layout printed next to the LED bar graph as a guide. Additionally, each CV channel can be linked to a Gate channel.
Among the basic gate-sequencing features you would expect—Clock In and Out jacks, a Reset input, and an End output—one of my favorites is the Tempo control, which stretches up above the button height and is easy to find in the heat of an improvisation.
Fig. 2. The Voltage Block can also accept busboard clock from 4ms QCD Quad Clock Distributor or DLD Dual Looping Delay modules, or it can be set to ignore busboard clock by moving a jumper on the circuit board.
Whether you use it on its own or in conjunction with the Varigate 8+, the Voltage Block CV sequencer is fun to use (Figure 2). It, too, offers 8 independent channels, each with up to 16 stages. In this case, each stage provides a signal range of 0-5V that is set using a vertical slider. Each of the 16 buttons in the lower part of the module represents a particular stage in a sequence channel. To set the CV level/pitch of a given channel’s sequence step, press its button and move the appropriate slider.
As with the Varigate 8+, programming the Voltage Block is done using combinations of button presses that include the Edit mode buttons. And similarly, each channel can be programmed with its own sequence length, clock division (up to 16), and a variable amount of smoothing per stage. Furthermore, you can select one of four sequence directions (forward, reverse, pendulum, and random), mute on a per-stage or per-channel basis, save and recall presets, and tie them together into Songs.
Aspects of sequence playback can be altered using external voltage input. A gate signal plugged into Reset/Hold, when Clock or Slave mode is selected, will cause the sequences to jump back to the first step. When the Clk/CV/Slave switch is set to CV, the incoming voltage level determines the starting position of the sequences: By using the Attenuate knob to alter the CV level at the input in combination with the Offset control, you can cause the start point of the sequence to jump around. The Divide control is used to change the sequence length.
Another interesting feature of the Voltage Block is the Random button. Pressing it randomizes the voltages in a sequence, which can be a great way to come up with new patterns when composing.
But if you’re more in a hurry, the Voltage Block offers 15 quantized scales—major, minor, chromatic, basic Greek modes, Japanese, Arabic, and Persian, among them—as well as an unquantized mode. The module also includes an arpeggiator that works in Clock or Slave mode. Here, the order of the steps in the arpeggio follows the order the steps were pressed.
A DYNAMIC DUO
Although the Varigate 8+ and Voltage Block take up a good chunk of panel space when placed next to each other in your Eurorack case, their combined utility will more than make up for it. By putting both modules on the same power bus, and switching the Voltage Block into Slave mode, you allow the module to share the Varigate 8+’s clock and preset save/recall functionality. Additionally, the Voltage Block will follow the gate-sequencer’s Random and Freeze behavior in regards to voltage and channel.
While that may not look like much when you read it in print, once you put it into practice and really get the hang of how the two modules work, you’ll see how musically fruitful it can be to have 8 tracks of gate and voltage sequences with integrated randomization and freezing functions—without additional patch cables!
Those of you who enjoy live patching will find it much easier to create, modify, save, and recall patterns and sequences across multiple, interconnected modules. And it’s this level of functionality that shows that Malekko did its homework when designing this pair.
So, while the Varigate 8+ and Voltage Block would certainly make great, so-called utility modules in a more sedate studio setting, they’re an inspiring pair of sequencers when your goal is to create compelling and complex music in real time.