A new generation of analog modular synthesizers has quietly come ofage. Such instruments update the best of vintage designs by offeringmodern circuitry and the advantages of computer control throughMIDI-to-voltage conversion. The new modulars often reflect the maverickattitudes of their designers, who have a unique and iconoclastic visionfor making music. When a synth designer's tastes run toward theexperimental, the resulting designs lend themselves to experimentation.In Wiard's case, experimentation is not only encouraged but alsodifficult to avoid.
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Wiard's founder, Grant Richter, describes the Wiard system as across between the ARP 2600 and Buchla Music Easel. I think thatdescription de-emphasizes the strangeness that separates the Wiard fromother synths. Richter collects vintage gear and owns and repairs rareBuchla, ARP, and Serge modules. He wanted the Wiard synth to fill asingular niche within the panoply of analog options. He wanted to buildsomething optimized for novelty, a sonic amusement park — in hisown words, something of a Chinese puzzle box.
NOT YOUR MOM'S MODULAR
The Wiard neither looks, behaves, nor sounds quite like anything Ihave ever used (see Fig. 1). With its cobalt-blue panels, Celticsilk-screen designs, and rows of multicolored LEDs, it lookscustom-made for a space-rock band like Hawkwind or a performance atBurning Man or the Stonehenge Free Festival. Sonically capable oftraditional or bizarre analog timbres, it can also emit bitingdigital-hybrid tonalities reminiscent of a PPG Wave. With its slew ofhidden features and uncompromising design, the Wiard is one of the mostunusual, challenging, and downright quirky modular synths evermade.
The Wiard modular presents a challenge to reviewers because theysimply can't become fully acquainted with it in a short period of time.Each module has an identical matrix of knobs and jacks, with few visualor ergonomic clues to guide an unfamiliar user. Input and output jacksintermingle, camouflaged among voltage controls and gates, andshorthand silkscreened legends do little to help distinguish inputsfrom outputs.
SWISS ARMY SYNTH
Wiard conceives each module as a multifunction unit that willperform both audio and voltage-control duties. Most modules have enoughfeatures to function as standalone tone generators. Together they forma very compact, full-featured synthesizer.
Wiard makes seven different built-to-order modules in its 300series. By the time you read this, an eighth module, the WoggleBug,will be added. For this review, I received an early Wiard One system,which comprised six modules: the Classic VCO, Sequantizer, Envelator,Waveform City, Omni Filter, and Dual Mixolator. (Since then, Wiard hasunbundled the 300-series modules and dropped the Wiard Onedesignation.) The system included Wiard's handy rackmountable JoystickController ($349) with two joysticks, two momentary gate buttons, avoltmeter, and adapter jacks. I also used the Borg Filter as astandalone.
A seven-module system (with one of each module) provides fouroscillators, two single VCAs, two stereo VCA/ring modulators, threemultimode filters, four envelope/lag processors, a random voltagesource, an eight-stage sequencer, and six four-way multiples. When youconsider that the Sequantizer module can double as a waveshapingoscillator and frequency divider — or that the Envelator modulecan act as a dual LFO, mixer, VCA, chaotic function generator, andvoltage-controllable ADSR — you begin to see the flexibilityhidden within those few modules.
The modules share an identical panel layout, which makes it easierfor Wiard to have the sheet metal manufactured in small quantities.Although the visual similarity between modules can make it moredifficult to distinguish functions on a dark stage, it does contributeto a nice symmetrical appearance. Each module has ten knobs, twoswitches, a row of eight LEDs, and 20 ⅛-inch minijacks arrangedin five rows and four columns. Most modules use the bottom row of fourjacks as a multiple to assist with complex patching.
Six modules fit side by side in a 6U-tall rack adapter. Exposedcircuit boards sit behind each front panel, with LEDs mounted on thetop board and minijacks on the bottom board. The jack panel has extrasolder pads at each connection, allowing users to customize their ownnormalized routing behind the patch points. An aluminum box houses themodule's guts, and at the back of this chassis lies the powerconnection, a 5-pin MIDI-style DIN plug (see Fig. 2).
Large DC wall warts supply power for as many as three modulesthrough a power-distribution truss. I don't like wall warts, especiallywhen they pile up like sleeping hamsters behind the racks. However,they allow Wiard to economize, and they prevent the risk of exposingusers to line voltages behind the modules.
Wiard provides two very different types of oscillators — theClassic VCO ($439) and Waveform City ($599), the latter of whichcrosses over into the digital realm. Waveform City generates digitallyencoded wavetables much like the PPG Waveterm and Waldorf Microwave.You can treat the wavetables just as you would an analog VCO withcontrol voltages, variable sync, and so on. Waveform City also containsits own envelope/lag processor and VCA, which are useful for addingexpression.
Waveform City's wavetables are arranged in 16 banks with 16waveforms each. You can sweep through the waveforms within a bank usingvoltage control. Wiard employs a rather complicated technique to scanthrough the samples within each wavetable: a sawtooth wave is sent froman analog VCO to an A/D converter, and the numerical output is used tosequence through the selected waveform. The lowest part of the sawtoothsets the pointer to the start of the wavetable, and as the voltagerises, the pointer moves through the wavetable to the end.
Using patch points to separate the analog scanning oscillator fromthe digital wavetables, Waveform City lets you warp the timbres. Theanalog VCO that Waveform City uses to scan through its wavetablesprovides most of the features you could want in an oscillator,including multiple waveforms and frequency modulation (FM), but it doesnot offer pulse-width modulation (PWM).
You can use Waveform City as a simple analog oscillator. Moreimportant, due to the fact that Wiard provides a patch point to theinput that controls the wavetable pointer, you can scan the wavetableswith something other than a sawtooth, thus modifying the shape of theresulting waveform. Consequently, you can modulate that digitalwaveshape the same way you can modulate an analog VCO.
Waveform City is one of the few wavetable oscillators that canrespond to audio-frequency modulation. The results are grainy, glitchy,chaotic, and interesting. That flexibility makes Waveform City the starof the Wiard system, giving Wiard its most unique and characteristicsounds. (Owners of Synthesis Technology MOTM and Blacet systems will bepleased to know that Wiard has licensed the Mini-Wave — adiminutive version of Waveform City with MOTM- or Blacet-compatiblefront panels — to Blacet.)
Wiard's other oscillator module, the Classic VCO, is pure analog andoffers more features than any analog oscillator I have ever seen. Itgenerates simultaneous sine, triangle, sawtooth, and pulse waves. Whenswitched to low-frequency mode, the oscillator ranges from 0.1 to 20Hz; in high frequency mode, it tracks well through a full ten-octaverange. Variable PWM, coarse and fine frequency controls, sync, and dualFM inputs fill out the usual VCO capabilities.
Additions to the standard features include a continuous Sync controlthat provides a range from hard sync to no sync at all. I know of onlya few other VCOs that offer soft sync, but I don't remember seeing anywith continuous sync control. The Classic VCO also provides both linearand exponential FM inputs.
Like most Wiard modules, the Classic VCO provides a few featuresthat would normally require additional modules. A built-in envelope andslew generator, normalized to a built-in VCA, provides basic attack andrelease functions. (As usual, you can defeat all normalized connectionsby plugging a patch cord in to the associated jack.) You can use theadditional features to add volume expression to the synth voice withoutwasting a full-featured VCA elsewhere in the system. The simpleenvelope generator (EG) is actually a lag processor with independentupward and downward contours. If you wish, you can place an audiosignal into the envelope's Gate input and use the circuit as anenvelope follower.
Also lurking on the Classic VCO's front panel is a lone jack thatprovides a separate Random output whose wandering voltages are clockedby the VCO's frequency. That output is the closest thing to a noisesource on the Wiard system, generating a pseudorandom sequence with 64voltage levels. It resembles Buchla's 200-series Source of Uncertaintymodule and works best at lower frequencies, in which the output actslike a sample and hold. At audio frequencies, it sounds rather grainy.I wish Wiard provided a true noise source somewhere in the system; toits credit, though, the random output gives something different fromthe norm.
The Envelator ($439) does double duty as a dual LFO or EG. When Ifirst looked at the Wiard system, I puzzled over the lack of a standardADSR envelope. The Envelator provides two separate two-stage envelopes,which you can individually set to attack-decay (best for triggerinput), attack-release (best for gate input), or cycling (for use asLFOs). Unlike those in most EGs, the envelopes grow shorter as you turnthe attack and decay knobs clockwise. The inversion makes sense inCycle mode, because a clockwise turn then increases the cyclingfrequency, but it's not intuitive for setting the envelope times.
Voltage-controlled attack and release times, as well as a built-involtage-controlled mixer that combines the two envelopes with externalsources, make the Envelator quite powerful. Initially I asked,“How do I get more complicated envelopes?” After a phonecall to Richter, I realized I wasn't thinking flexibly. By separatingthe functions of a single complex envelope into two simple envelopes,the Envelator gives you the best of both. For ADSR response, simply setone envelope to AD mode and the other to AR. The Mix output then emitsan ADSR envelope, and the Mix control determines the sustain level byadding either more or less of the shape's sustaining half. By addingvoltage control to the different stages of the envelope, you can createintricate and expressive dynamic shapes. Those tricks take time tograsp, as do many of Wiard's more interesting features.
Wiard's Sequantizer ($439) provides eight stages of continuouslyadjustable voltages and can be clocked from an external source.Built-in voltage quantization makes it easier to hit equal-temperednotes with the knobs. Each stage has a corresponding gate output, andfor odd time signatures, you can shorten the sequence length by meansof a Reset jack. To add complexity, a Select knob and correspondingvoltage input allow you to rearrange the order of the pattern. Plus andminus octave-transposer inputs accept gates for either upward ordownward transpositions, and a separate voltage-transposer input canshift the sequence by other intervals. A Glide knob and correspondingvoltage add portamento, and you can easily patch it to create per-stageportamento like the old Roland TR-303 has.
A Sequantizer output marked 10V is useful if you want tocreate microtonal sequences or if you need a greater voltage range thanthat available from the Sequantizer's main output. The main outputemits voltages after they have passed through the lag processor andquantizer; the quantizer limits this output to 1.5V.
Typical of the Wiard modules, a few thoughtful extras allow you touse the Sequantizer for purposes other than simple arpeggios. Becauseit can clock at audio frequencies from an external source, you can usethe Sequantizer as a frequency divider and waveshaping oscillator. Whenclocking through all eight steps, it creates a tone that appears to bethree octaves below the clock frequency. If you shorten the recycletime, you change the division; for example, if you patch theSequantizer to reset at step 3, it generates a periodic waveshape anoctave and a fifth below the clock. By adjusting the knobs for eachstage, you can change the shape of that audio waveform. (The trickworks better from the 10V output because of its hotter levels.)
Wiard provides two very different filter modules, the Omni Filter($599) and the Borg Filter ($439). Both provide switching betweenlowpass, bandpass, and highpass modes, in addition to variableresonance and FM inputs. In other respects, however, the filters differdramatically.
The Omni Filter offers allpass response and voltage-controllablemode switching, with inputs for four separate signals. One Mix knobcontrols the gain for inputs 1 and 2, and another for inputs 3 and 4.Four voltage-control inputs provide a 1V per octave input, twofrequency-control inputs with associated attenuation knobs, and alinear FM input with its own attenuator. The second frequency-controlknob inverts the input voltage when you turn it to the left and boostsit positively when you turn it to the right.
The Omni Filter also includes coarse and fine frequency knobs, Q(resonance) control, and an attenuator knob for the Q's voltage-controlinput. Mix and Phase switches blend the dry signal with the filteredsignal for phase-shifting effects in Allpass mode. Voltage-controllablemode switching really sets the Omni filter apart and allows for somedramatic automated sonic mutations.
As you turn the Mode knob clockwise (or send it a voltage), youswitch the filter through lowpass, bandpass, highpass, and allpassresponses. Most filters that allow multiple modes provide only 12dB-per-octave (2-pole) response, typical of a state-variable design.However, the Omni isn't a state-variable filter, and it provides a full24 dB-per-octave cutoff.
A separate 12 dB-per-octave output taps the 2-pole response as well.Wiard achieved this response the hard way. The Omni Filter employs adiscrete op-amp design with a sound similar to that of the ARP 2600filter. The Mode knob and voltage input together control ahigh-frequency pulse-width-modulated switch that reconfigures thefilter circuit. You can create some bizarre effects by letting theswitch hang between two filter modes as it buzzingly crossfades betweentwo responses.
Here's a quick story to illustrate what it's like to work with acompany as small as Wiard. During the course of this review, I hadseveral conversations with Richter. I told him that I thought thefilter sounded a bit bland and that I didn't like the way the resonancewas frequency-dependent. The filter squawked at higher frequencies andsounded a bit thin to my ears, and I couldn't get a really punchy,resonant low bass sound. He said nobody had mentioned that before, buthe agreed with my complaint.
After pondering the problem, Richter called me back the same day. Hecame up with a tweak to the filter design that he will offer toexisting customers and incorporate into future shipments. I overnightedmy Omni Filter to him, and he returned it the following week, vastlyimproved. Richter's responsiveness left me with a great impression ofWiard's customer service.
Even with the new modifications, the Omni Filter still sounds veryclean, a bit clinical, and definitely more ARP than Moog. Now theresonance tracks evenly through the frequency range, and the cutoffgoes low enough to squash a subharmonic bass note.
In contrast, the Borg Filter sounds anything but clinical. Squawkyby design, this thing has attitude. The Borg includes two separatefilters with Mode knobs that select lowpass, bandpass, or highpass (seeFig. 3). The filters' 2-pole response gives them acharacteristically buzzy sound, but you can gang them in series tocreate a 4-pole response. Wiard hybridized the Buchla 200-series QuadLopass Gate and the Korg MS-20 filters to create the Borg, whichemploys a Sallen-Key design with Vactrol circuits at the FM inputs. Thedesign attenuates high-frequency modulation, making it more difficultto create audio FM effects, yet it works well for slow, sweepingmultiple resonances.
For built-in FM, the Borg Filter incorporates two independent VCOswith simultaneous triangle-, sawtooth-, and square-wave outputs. Theoscillators normalize to the filters' FM inputs, but you can also usethem as additional LFOs or tone generators.
The Borg's labeling is confusing at first. With filter-resonanceknobs labeled Peak in the manner of an old Korg, filter-cutoffvoltage inputs labeled Key Follow, and VCO inputs labeled1V/Oct, the front panel is not exactly self-explanatory.Nonetheless, the Borg Filter proved to be quite useful after I becameaccustomed to its idiosyncrasies.
BLENDING AND BENDING
The Mixolator ($439) hides a wealth of amplitude- andtimbral-shaping features, but its hermetic silk-screened labelingdoesn't help decode its potential. The Mixolator is actually a dualstereo VCA, which can also work as a ring modulator, mixer, and panner.It can mix both audio and control-voltage signals.
Each half of the Mixolator provides two X inputs (added together)and one Y input. Each input has its own gain knob. The X and Y channelsstay separated for stereo applications. The Z input (which has its ownattenuation knob) provides the voltage for VCA gain. Another knoballows you to adjust the response to Z from linear to logarithmic. Whenyou switch the mode from VCA to Ring Mod, an inverted copy of the Xoutput is mixed into the signal so that only the sidebands remain fromthe sum of the X and Z inputs. The Mixolator provides positive andinverted phase outputs for X and Y channels, which are useful when youare mixing control voltages or when you're creating complicatedfeedback patches.
In terms of novelty, the Wiard modular system succeeds in spades.Its most innovative module, Waveform City, allows it to enter the edgyworld of digital tonality while maintaining the fluid maneuverabilityof analog control. Its multifunction envelope/slew generators encourageyou to think openly and to explore the mutable possibilities of analogcircuitry.
Any instrument with personality tends to guide its user into certainsonic territories. A synth's tonal strengths and weaknesses, combinedwith its user interface, suggest certain directions. I found myselfgravitating toward brighter, more edgy timbres on the Wiard than onother analog synths. The combination of Waveform City's overtone gritand the somewhat bright-sounding Wiard filters suggests an industrialhigh-tech sheen more than soft organic warmth. The magic of a modularsynth lies in its flexibility, so your impression could well beentirely different. I suspect that explorers in the realm of glitchyelectronica, artists like Autechre or Tetsu Inoue, could find a motherlode of good noise within the Wiard's wires.
The system comes with sparse documentation that barely hints at thedeep possibilities hidden within each module. Even if you are wellversed in analog synthesis, you might find yourself climbing a learningcliff so steep, you'll wish you had ropes and crampons. If you canovercome the initial sense of unfamiliarity, however, you will soonbegin to discover the depth and flexibility in Wiard's unusualapproach.
The Wiard system would make an excellent addition to a synthesizercollector's arsenal and an impressive live-performance synth forexperimentalists, technophiles, and spaceheads. I wouldn't recommend itas a synth player's only axe, and I would discourage most neophytesfrom considering it, given its price and difficulty. But if you'relooking for something completely different — something thatchallenges you to retool your sound-making palette — Wiard mightbe the playground that keeps your electrons smiling.
Robert Richrefuses to plug his new CD, Bestiary,which doesn't use strange, glurpy modular-synth noises. You neverread this bio. You may now wake up.
300-Series Modular System
modular analog synthesizer
$439-$599 per module
FEATURES4.5EASE OF USE2.5AUDIO QUALITY4.0VALUE3.5
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Deep controllability. Digital/analog hybrid module.Compact size.
CONS: Dense and confusing patch panels. Poor documentation.Wall-wart power supplies. Difficult to learn.
300-Series Module Specifications Synthesis Types
analog subtractive synthesis; digital wavetable, nonlinear synthesis( 8-bit waveforms/nonlinear transforms in Waveform Citymodule)
1 note per oscillator module (when used with external MIDI-to-CVconverter)
VCO Frequency Range
LFO Frequency Range
VCO Pitch-Tracking Accuracy
±5 cents over 8 octaves
Gate Input Range
up to ±10V; >50 kΩ nominal impedance
±5V; <1 kΩ nominal impedance
Control Voltage I/O
1V/octave; ±10V range
none (external MIDI-to-CV required)
(20) ⅛" minijacks per module
quantized 8-stage CV (in Sequantizer)
±15 VDC; rearmounted 5-pin DIN connects to wall warts
2.83" (W) × 10.50" (H) × 10.50" (D)