The whirlwind of Eurorack modules: Use your ears

There are now literally thousands of Eurorack modules available to purchase, from dozens of companies, ranging from fairly substantial to one-person mom and pop shops. The quest to build the modular synth of your dreams is finicky, expensive, and never-ending. Anyone who has been doing this for a while has made mistakes, and purchased something that turned out to not be suitable for them. Mistakes can be financially costly, although many modules hold a significant portion of their value when sold as used.

So you have a few bucks stowed away, and you are ready to buy your next module. What do you get? How do you do it?

1. Identify the function you need most. It’s not just about getting the coolest thing you’ve heard of. What function is the next thing you need to expand the capabilities of all the modules you already have? A sound generator? A CV modulator? A mixer or audio I/O? Remember, a system filled with nothing but sexy modules with lots of blinky lights doesn’t have near the power or flexibility of a well-thought out system with all the utility stuff you need. Envelopes, mults, VCA’s, and LFO’s can be somewhat boring, but they are just as important to the overall system as a really cool wavetable oscillator.

2. Do research online. Muffwiggler and ModularGrid are excellent starting points for your research. ModularGrid has an amazing search feature, which allows you to specify function, manufacturer, width, and so on.

3. Listen online. There are loads of YouTube videos about nearly every module out there. Listen to what other people do with the module, and let that narrow your choices.

4. Most importantly, try it out in person whenever possible. This is such an individual thing, which is what makes it so powerful and expressive. Other people will have opinions that can help guide you, but the final step in the operation must be about your physically listening and playing with the item whenever possible. The final answer will be dictated by that approach, and may surprise you.

For example, I was looking for one more oscillator to finish up my system (for now). I searched on ModularGrid for something that would fit in the space I had, and narrowed it down. I then listened to examples and looked at functionality for my final choices, and settled on an E350 Morphing Terrarium. Cool module, lots of interesting capabilities by being able to index through wavetables, very highly rated by other people. So I pulled an oscillator that I had purchased at the beginning of my journey into Eurorack, but that didn’t do anything for me, to take for trade value. Went to my local shop (Perfect Circuit Audio in Burbank, CA) armed to buy the Morphing Terrarium. And then I sat and worked with the module for 15 minutes or so, listening intently, operating all the functions, plugging in CV modulation, and really concentrating on whether this unit would reflect my personality and electronic music goals.

As it turned out, the unit in person didn’t grab me. It’s not that it was not an interesting oscillator – it absolutely was. It just wasn’t the right one for me. So after listening carefully to several others, I ended up purchasing a Mutable Instruments Tides. About half the cost of the Morphing Terrarium, but that wasn’t my driving interest in this case, as I had saved enough to buy the more expensive unit. There was just something about the way it indexed through waveshapes that immediately grabbed me. And the fact that there was alt firmware out there which gave it a couple of totally new functions sealed the deal. I walked away with a Tides, some money left in my pocket to spend on my kids this weekend, and a different perspective on what I was looking for.

Best. NAMM Booth. Ever.

Remembering our heroes

I write this on the last night of Barack Obama’s presidency. As we sit on the cusp of a new and entirely chilling era, I’ve felt a sick feeling of dread all day as I roamed the aisles of the NAMM.

But one booth was amazing. Something I had never seen before, and so appropriate for this show.

You see, 2016 was appalling beyond measure for a number of reasons. Not the least of which was the unbelievable number of incredible musicians that left us. This number, for some reason, was disproportionally represented by so many of the legends of electronic music.

And so Moog Music created an unbelievable piece of art. They had no synthesizers on the show floor. Nothing to sell.

They had a giant wall with drawings of Pauline Oliveros, Don Buchla, Jean Jacques Perry, Isao Tomita, Bernie Worrell, and Keith Emerson – all electronic music legends, and all who died in 2016.

They then handed out little personal music players, that you listened to while walking a maze of remembrance, peppered with quotes from and about these amazing artists. You then used Twitter or Instagram to send a fond thought or picture, celebrating these artists. Your reward was a small notebook to remember them by, or perhaps a Moog synth, or VIP tickets to Moogfest.

I celebrated the life of Pauline Oliveros, who had been my teacher. But I remembered seeing Don Buchla so many times around the halls of Mills College, and working with Keith Emerson once on a multimedia project. How many people’s lives had been touched by these great artists?

I stand, with the rest of my country and the world, on the precipice of despair. I am looking down the abyss into a cauldron of misery, corruption, and deception. I will pay no attention to the proceedings in Washington tomorrow, where a great man will leave and a despicable one will take his place.

But while I’m busy not thinking about our future, I take comfort in our past. Thanks Keith, Pauline, and Don. Thanks for contributing beauty to the world, and for helping to make me who I am.

NAMM 2017 day one

Here I am at the Anaheim convention center, for my yearly ritual of yammering to friends I see once a year, ogling the never-ending and bewildering array of new musical technology, and listening to some great music.

This year will be all about Eurorack – researching and discussing the latest modules with their inventors deciding what I do want (analog) and don’t want (digital – well perhaps except for the E350 Morphing Terrarium) and listening, listening, listening.

I received the modules yesterday to nearly finish my initial Eurorack performance environment. I know, you are never finished with modular. But sadly, the Doepfer A-155 sequencer did not arrive from Germany in one piece. I emailed the Doepfer company to see if I could perhaps leave it with them at NAMM to take it back for repair, and within an hour, Dieter Doepfer himself emailed back and told me who to talk to. Now that’s customer service!

And…we’re back!

After several months of no Under the big tree site, the skeleton of a new site is in place. I had written a ton of PHP code for the previous site that made it unmanageable in the long term – but back around 2004 when I first created the site, that was what was available.

Now this site will make the best use of content tools from around the net. The site is written in the latest version of WordPress. Audio files will be stored on Soundcloud, and linked here. Video will be stored on YouTube.

In addition to having my musical content, I’ll be blogging about topics in electronic music (primarily Eurorack modular these days), sound design, and vintage keyboards. Glad to be back, just in time for NAMM 2017. And happy new year!