Building a modular sound design rig is hard. Picking the right modules is fairly easy because you basically want them all. I have 168 HP of available space, which is four big rows of modular stuff and two ‘normal’ rows, or two big suitcases and one reasonable sized. It’s a lot of space. Filling them is not difficult. It’s a matter of exploring your musical needs, reading lots of reviews, watching many, many videos and telling yourself you’re OK, you’re not addicted. No, this post is simply putting all these modules in the right spot so they can actually work together and make music.
My rig has a lot of the inevitable modules from MakeNoise and Mutable Instruments, the SMR and the awesome Assimilator from Rossum. When I started, I had a MakeNoise case and a Mutable Instruments case, because it looked good. I even painted some of the modules black to match the MakeNoise Black & Gold theme I like a lot. They have a leather jacket punk look and feel. I went over the edge by painting the aluminum MakeNoise modules black too. Sorry about that, they’re now aluminum again. It is probably an autistic thing bring order to the Universe. For me, most modular rigs look like they glued all kinds of ugly bricks together.
Anyway, the MakeNoise case worked, because it’s an old CV Shared System and the guys must have figured out the most useful combination of modules to patch. There’s a reason why Maths is the left most component in an official rig, and why the Phonogene / Morphagene is in the bottom right. I mounted a little mixer to make it easier to patch different cases together, only to find out that a Shared System ‘only’ has a DPO as the primary oscillator, two two-channel VCA’s and a Sound-On-Sound mixer in the Phono/Morph. There’s always a way to patch from any source to the final out. You can even do CV stereo panning with the Mod Demix and Maths. So the extra mixer was completely useless – and too far away from the other cases. The MakeNoise approach may sound too crazy west coast experimental hippy for the faint hearted, but it’s a sound design dream. And a very ergonomic one.
Morphagene, Assimilator and Clouds
The Morphagene should be part of the Shared CV, but it’s too important for my setup to be far away from other sources. My most important module is the Rossum Assimi8or, which I rebranded into an Emulator 5, and nothing can beat the Clouds. Unfortunately it’s in redesign so I use a µClouds clone with Parasites firmware. This combination is the heart of my sound. I love to drive the Assimilator with six MakeNoise Tempi channels of variation, but the weird clock ‘listen to the beat’ implementation makes it hard to get/stay in sync with a master BPM. Fortunately the Assimilator can also record gates so you can loop a sync pulse to Tempi. But this should not be necessary with a +$ 300 module in 2019. Still, it’s worth every penny for its musicality. It sounds alive. Modular systems should sound alive, compared to their drum computer competition. I am thinking of buying an old Phonogene and make the CV case a futuristic retro case. People are probably dumping it to replace it with a Morph – and they should – but the Phonogene is much easier in a live set and a better match for the mono VCO’s. Again, the Morphagene is brilliant, but the user experience is terrible. REC/SPLICE for recording, SPLICE/REC for entering reel mode. SHIFT/REC for five seconds for deleting. I always take the SD card out when fooling around and keep a backup of my reels because this thing is just dying to delete your recordings when trying to record something new. These old tape recorders had simple buttons that worked like a charm. Sadly, Tom Erbe forgot about those.
The Mutable Instruments case didn’t work for me. I have a Stages, Tides, Marbles and Ripples on board, along with a Plaits, Warps. Elements, Ears and a Yarns to feed it some midi. I created these cases for sound design, but my VST loaded BatCave studio PC can do much better than any Mutable combination. This is basically because Plaits is an elemental ‘beginner’ sound source. Very versatile, but in a ‘heard it all before’ category. Elements could have been much more than a Blow and Strike machine. I am a big fan of the Native Instruments Reaktor Prism plugin and Elements sounds small, thin and fake. It sounds a bit better when feeding it some external sources and FM, but it remains ‘mwha’. So exit Elements until Oliver makes it right. Everybody has Marbles built in, but for me it feels like a karaoke machine. So I think about losing my marbles soon, or maybe keep it to modulate and animate stuff. Or maybe read the manual again and check for Parasite updates. But I love Stages and Tides. Make Noise Maths can do anything, but Stages and Tides are more useful for traditional ADSR and LFO stuff.
My central 84 HP 7U case has a Mixology for the final mix and send FX from the TipTop Z-DSP. It’s a big module, but in the end it only has two stereo inputs. So after patching the left and right 104 HP 7U cases from Make Noise I couldn’t patch anything else, rendering the central 0-COAST and Plaits mute in the big picture.
So making things work is far from easy. I must have removed, refitted and replaced every module a thousand times. Finally I have a rig that could almost work for live gigs, because that’s the second goal: performing live with a modular.