Roundup: Preconfigured Modular Synth Systems

Factory-Designed Setups for Every Application
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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!

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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 ELECTRONIC MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS
BUCHLA.COM

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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.

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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.BLACET.COM

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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 features.

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.

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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 experimentation.DOEPFER
DOEPFER.DE

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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 you started.

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 website.

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,” to come.

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Fig. 4. The Make Noise Shared System packs a wealth of high-level functionality into a flight-friendly case.MAKE NOISE
MAKENOISEMUSIC.COM

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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.

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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.MOOG MUSIC
MOOGMUSIC.COM

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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.

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Fig. 6. The Pittsburgh Modular Foundation 3.1 is a surprisingly powerful and featuredense MIDI-controllable system in a portable 3U case.PITTSBURGH MODULAR
PITTSBURGHMODULAR.COM

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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.

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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.STUDIO ELECTRONICS
STUDIOELECTRONICS.COM

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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 timbre.

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.

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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.SYNTHESIZERS.COM
SYNTHESIZERS.COM

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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 setup.

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 else—it’s big!

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.

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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.THE HARVEST MAN
THEHARVESTMAN.ORG

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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.