I'm looking into building a small system for ambient pads, FM sounds, and just generally "interesting" sounds (I guess everyone wants interesting sounds :)).

I have started with this:

ModularGrid Rack

Some questions:

Which modulator(s) would work well with (Mutable Instruments) Rings and Akemie's Castle? Would Maths make sense, for instance?

Does 4ms Spectral Multiband Resonator work well with these two modules, and what other modules would make sense in combination with this module?

Are there any granular modules that you can recommend? Clouds, perhaps, or Morphagene?

I'm planning on sequencing (and to some extent controlling) the modules through Ableton Live (and Expert Sleepers ES-3), so I'm mainly looking for modules that don't overlap too much with what can be (conveniently) done from within Ableton Live.

Also, what would be a good output module? Would (Mutable Instruments) Veils work, for instance?

I've also been looking at Planar 2.

Any feedback would be greatly appreciated! :)


Chowning FM really needs envelopes galore to be used properly. A pair of Xaoc Zadars with their Nin expanders would team up very well with that and not occupy loads of space. That would give you eight envelopes with full CV and memory storage in 26 hp. However, having a Maths for more modulation possibilities (such as with the SMR) is a very good idea. As for the SMR, yep, it's a very good stereo filter for pads, sort of like an amped-up version of the Korg PS-series triple resonator with loads more control.

As for granular modules, Tall Dog does an 8 hp version of the Mutable Clouds. Also, they do an 8 hp version of the Rings module as well, which would give you back 6 hp to use for something else.

Veils is a decent VCA mixer, but you save a bit by getting Intellijel's Quad VCA...essentially the same thing, $10 less. However, this would not make a decent output module, as you need to step your levels down to line level and, optimally, provide some isolation at the output to reduce noise and crud. In fact, given that both the Clouds clone and the SMR (and the Akemie's, for that matter) are full stereo, what you actually need is a stereo mixer...something with CV over levels, FX sends, and panning. Toppobrillo's Stereomix seems like a good choice, having all of those functions plus a few useful additions such as mutes. Now, with that, you would want to use the SMR then the Clouds clone after the Stereomix so that you can tamper with the sound of the summed pad. Plus, consider adding something for the Stereomix's AUX send/return that can add some stereo as well. One module that comes to mind here is SSF's DPLR, a mono-in stereo-out delay/chorus module, which you can use to fatten up pad sounds selectively and under CV control via the Stereomix's AUX level CVs. As for an output, have a look at Happy Nerding's Isolator, which gives you a ganged stereo level control, headphone amp, 1/4" TRS outs, and transformer isolation (which, I note, you can overdrive a bit to get some nice saturation) in only 4 hp. One argument for having a Quad VCA, though, would be that you don't have any other VCAs in this and those might come in easy for controlling both audio and CV levels as needed. Since you can break out VCAs from that as needed, that would take care of all of your individual VCA needs in this small a build.

As for other additions, I'd suggest some LFOs...Xaoc's Batumi is a pretty useful and space-saving quad LFO; adding its Poti expander would add a few more functions that you'd find handy. You can also swap the LFOs from this with the envelopes from the Zadar for a different control method over the Akemie's, although the Zadar can loop its envelopes. Adding a second poly-VCO might be useful as well...something analog such as Recovery's Jupiter Spirits paired with a couple of simple 4-1 mixers (such as 2hp's Mix) so that you can create a stereo mix out of the triangle and saw waveforms the poly VCO outputs. Perhaps pairing this with a MakeNoise Optomix would be a good idea, as that would allow you to have lowpass gates over this stereo voice for a different note attack sound against the Akemie's, or against the Jupiter Spirits if that makes sense for the patch you're working on. Note also that the Optomix will also need some very basic envelopes; the Doepfer A-140-2 gives you a pair of ADSRs in only 8 hp with CV over overall time.

As for one thing to avoid...try and make do without multiples here, as this build is going to be pretty tight. Instead, use stackcables or inline mults. Passive is fine; since the oscillators are all being fed direct from the ES-3, buffered mults aren't necessary.

Lastly, is this going into a powered case or do you need to add on a power inlet?


Thank you so much for your reply - it was very informative, and I learned a lot from it!

I'm considering the 6U Walnut Eurorack Case Peter from SynthRacks, which is a powered case available in the widths of 84, 104, 110 and 126 HP. I had a width of 84 HP in mind, but it seems like I will need a larger case eventually, so perhaps I should buy a larger one from the get-go?

I'm guessing something like this is pretty much what fits in the 84 HP case:

ModularGrid Rack

I had to take out the ES-5 expander to fit these modules. I wonder at which point I'm likely to benefit from the ES-5 expander.

Does this seem to be a viable setup or am I missing something vital?

How important is a VCA?

Here is a 104 HP version:

ModularGrid Rack

Here is a 110 HP version (with a bit of an awkward layout), that I think should contain everything but the VCAs:

ModularGrid Rack

I'm also thinking about what the "essential" minimal setup would be here. Perhaps it would make sense to approach this with either Akemie's Castle or Rings in mind, and build up the system from that.


Always start on MG with a case that seems too large. You can always pare things back down on here before committing money to hardware.

VCAs look boring, yes. But they're essential. They're what you MUST USE to create changes in level for both audio and CV/modulation, they can be used as ring modulators (of a sort), they can allow automation of panning, mixing, etc. Lots of people try and get away with one or two...and regret it later on.

That's an expensive case you're looking at, btw; if I configure it with power at 126 hp x 2, I get a cost of UKP 680 with VAT. Then there's this: https://www.ericasynths.lv/shop/enclosures/studio/2x126hp-monster-case-140mm-deep/ which has a much beefier power supply (2.5 A on each 12V rail), better depth (140 mm max!), real busboards, etc. OK, so it's not curvy...but remember: what you can do sonically is the important factor here. Think practicality.

As for the design...hm...let me think about that. The biggest problem is basing this around the Akemie's, because it's such a space hog, but there'll be other ways of making this work...


Thanks, Lugia!

Great suggestions about the case, power, and MG case sizes!

I'm very curious about alternative solutions for Akemie's Castle, if you find the time. :)

Trying to get a better grasp of the different functions and concepts that you described, I started thinking about a simpler system with only Rings as a sound souce. Here is an idea:

ModularGrid Rack

In such a system, would we prefer combining Maths and Batumi (with Poti), or just use Zandar (with Nin, acting as an envelope and a LFO)? Perhaps we need more than one envelope in order to effectively control these modules? (To what extent can Maths control multiple modules, for instance Rings and SMR, at the same time?)

Is there anything particularly important (perhaps a VCA or LFO) that we would want to add to this?


Actually, this is what I came up with earlier today. Would've posted it sooner, but I've been dealing with equipment shipping nonsense:
ModularGrid Rack
First up, the layout here makes a lot more sense, locating oscillators in one place, modulation in another, modifiers in a third, etc.

I've added VCA mixing control over the Jupiter Spirits' VCO outs via a pair of Doepfer A-135-2s. The Maths was also replaced by Doepfer's version of the Serge/Ken Stone VCS module, which freed up 4 more hp while still providing much of the same functionality. There's also a very complex random/noise module down by the Expert Sleepers modules; random sources were missing previously, and to get certain organic "irregularities" in pads, a tiny bit of random drift in conjunction with the DPLR's delayed output will do wonders...in addition to all of the other things that Ultra-Random Analog can do. As for the Expert Sleepers interface, I changed that out to an ES-8 with an ES-5 CV expander...this now gives you USB in addition to ADAT Lightpipe, plus four return channels to your DAW for timing, etc signals so that the modular can control DAW functions when needed (in conjunction with Silent Way or Volta, of course). The Doepfer VCAs are mainly for audio level control, so a third VCA/mixer for linear response for CVs is in the lower row. Next to that, you'll notice a Mutable Stages, which can do multiple sorts of modulation duties, and a TriATT, giving you attenuation, CV offsets, and inversion, plus mixing over three inputs.

Rings got shrunk down via a Codex Modulex uRinks...same module, better price and footprint. Optomix remains for LPG and audio summing use, allowing you to mix down to one audio channel with LPGs or to create a stereo result with the same. Dual Zadar + Nins cover much of the Akemie's control, plus a Batumi + Poti are there for CVable LFOs. And while this seems short on conventional envelope generators, the fact is that you can use Silent Way/Volta via the ES-8/5 to send conventional envelopes from your DAW, allowing for more exotic modulation sources here in the cab. As for the little black 1 hp sliver on the left side, that's a Konstant Labs PWR Checker...allows you to see your power situation at a glance, which can be rather useful for a number of diagnostic things.

So...does this version make more sense?


This is very interesting and looks absolutely brilliant! Thank you! :)

However, the system is turning out quote a bit more complex (and expensive) than I thought it would be.

So if I may throw in some additional constraints...

I think it would be useful for me to be more limited (although not too limited) to begin with, and explore fewer modules. I'm also thinking that it could be a good idea to add a Mordax DATA (or similar), so that I can see a visual representation while experimenting with the modules.

Basically, I'm curious about what could be an minimal but viable variant (interesting to work with, and at least somewhat flexible in terms of what kind of sounds (pads, basses, etc.) can be produced). Let's say we had to cut it down to only one sound source, for instance, perhaps getting rid of µRinks, SMR, Clouds and/or Stereomix.

It may be a silly idea, but could the system work with only µRinks as a sound source?

Or what could the system look like if we only built it around Jupiter Spirits?

Some other thoughts:

Is that a fan in the Erica Synths case? (I would prefer if the case I'm using is silent. Perhaps they all are?)

If the system is smaller, could a skiff case could be a good place to start?

Are there any other cases that you can recommend?

Also, I wonder if ES-8 is preferable to ES-3. That is, if it wouldn't be better for me to connect directly to Fireface UCX (which connects to the computer using USB) via an ADAT connection. I don't know if there could be a conflict with having to USB audio interfaces.

Finally, Is it possible to add envelopes to Zadar (perhaps by patching the firmware), or are we limited to the evelopes that are preprogrammed in there? I'm guessing that the many envelopes and virtually endless modulation possibilities would compensate for that, but I still think it would be pretty neat to be able to do.

Thanks again!


There might be a way to add new waveforms to the Zadar, but the amount of "primitives" you have to work with (260) plus all of the complex transformation capabilities over those means that you probably won't ever have to do that. As for the ES-8 conflict issue, it shouldn't be a problem given that most DAWs these days allow you to specify which channels are being fed by/feeding which signals. You can probably set up a template that gives the Fireface and ES-8 clear directions as to who does what, and then use that as your main work template preference. I'd suggest going to Expert Sleepers' website (https://www.expert-sleepers.co.uk/) and looking over the Silent Way documentation as it relates to the ES-8 and using that with another USB audio interface. The other convenient thing, though, is that if you want to play live with only the modular, all you'd need is the DAW with Silent Way to handle your basic CV/gate functions with no need to pull the ADAT Lightpipes. And also, notice that the ES-8 has Lightpipe connections, so if there was a conflict, you could still fall back on those. But even moreso, the ES-8 has four inputs which the ES-3 doesn't have, allowing your modular to send control signals (such as clocking, triggers, etc) back into the DAW along with the capability of recording the modular's audio direct-to-digital.

No, the Erica cab doesn't have a fan. But what it does have is that amazing 140mm case depth plus excellent power specs, and the ability (if eventually needed) to add Erica's tube heater P/S addon for later tube modules, if you find some of those interesting. The Erica case is also vented, which helps to keep heat buildup issues (such as tuning drift) to a minimum.

Yep, modular is expensive. Nothing much you can do about that if certain functionalities that require specific modules are required. But while the build I put up looks complicated, ultimately, it's not. Everything's very straightforward as far as panel markings and controls, plus you have the ability to automate (via the ES-8) many of the Zadar functions, Akemie's algorithm selection, your mix levels, etc with the DAW/Silent Way able to track this via musical cues from the modular itself...yet there's still lots to tweak manually as well.


As far as integration with Ableton, another option is the FH2. Basically it's MIDI to CV. It's less expensive than the ES8. But has no option to record audio. I would really investigate both of the modules and see which is the better fit for your workflow.


Thanks Lugia and Ronin1973!

If I may borrow my own thread to pose a related, and perhaps naive, question...

Could a system containing of only Rings, Expert Sleepers ES-3/ES-8, and a powered case like EricaSynths Pico Case, be viable?

I'm interesting in experimenting with controlling Rings using only software (in particular, CV Tools in Ableton Live). I would like to sequence and control Rings from Ableton (through ADAT to ES-8).

I would also like to record the output of Rings into Ableton.

Could that work? :)


Rings is technically a filter (yes, a physically-modelled resonator...but that's a very fancy DSP-ish filter, ultimately) and even if doing self-resonating things, you'll get a limited palette of Rings-generated sounds. I think you're thinking more of the Mutable Elements here...which is the Rings plus a modelled vibration source. Even so, without VCAs, modulation sources, etc, the results would be sort of meh. With the ES modules, you can have Silent Way generate modulation, which helps...but without similar audio signal control, you lose a lot.


Thanks for the information!

I have some follow-up questions:

  1. Would it be possible to use Ableton or some external instrument (like a keyboard) as a sound source into Rings/Elements using CV Tools/Silent Way?
  2. Would it be possible to use CV Tools/Silent Way as a VCA (by patching the CV or audio signal into the computer and back into the modular system again)?
  3. Can Elements do everything that Rings can do?

Cheers!


In reverse order...

Rings is the resonator section from Elements. So, yes...and more besides.

Using an ES interface as a VCA in conjunction with a DAW is...well, sort of a waste. For example, let's say you plan to do this anyway. So, what has to happen is that your signal has to go to the ES's input, go through the conversion routine, get transmitted back to the DAW, processed in some way by the DAW to control the level, go back out to the interface and get REconverted back to analog, then back into the patch. Which brings in all sorts of ugly factors such as latency, digital jitter, etc etc. Plus, you're using some expensive jacks there to do what a basic, inexpensive VCA module does. And even if you wind up controlling that VCA via Silent Way, you're still using only one output channel for that function, and there's no encode/decode/latency/jitter issues. That's really how the ES interfaces should work; the input channels really work best in a send-only method, for either audio to stripe to the DAW, or to send clocking, etc data.

In theory, you can send audio to the modular via an ES interface (basically, it's a DC-coupled audio interface) from your DAW. But if I remember right, you'll have to have Ableton address the interface as if it were an audio output, and Silent Way wouldn't enter into this part of communication. However, given the nature of analog modular synthesis, you might be better off using a proper audio input module that also has an envelope follower, as that last device there can be very useful in shaping other CVable factors (especially timbre and dynamics) by using the audio level of the input signal. Setting that sort of thing up in the computer might actually wind up being a lot more fussy and unintuitive than the few patches and knobtwiddles that the modular solution would allow.


I started out intending to use Ableton as part of my Eurorack set-up. My conclusion was that it's just a very clunky solution that requires lots of compromise and pre-planning. I found that keeping everything "in-the-case" to be a much smoother workflow. At the end of the day it's about getting the sounds that you WANT rather than trying to manage an ad-hock set-up.

$0.02. Your results may vary. But don't get locked into a solution that looks good on paper but is a real pain in the ass in reality.


Hi, Lugia and Ronin1973!

Thank you - your knowledge and experience is greatly appreciated. :)

I read an indication that Rings provides additional synthesis (sympathetic strings and modulated/inharmonic strings), as well as a kind of "strum" polyphony. Rings also offers 2 separate outputs for even/odd harmonies. I'm not sure what exactly this means, or if I would miss these features going with Elements. The idea of something polyphony-like seems quite attractive to me.

Regarding audio input with an envelope follower, and external instruments, I would really like to be able to use the audio signal from a synth, a microphone, or perhaps even a guitar. I have some instruments and it would be great to be able to combine them effectively with the modules. Would Mutable Instruments Ears allow me to do this? Could this even allow me to start off without a module sound source?

I see now that my idea of using an ES interface and a DAW as a VCA is problematic. What VCA would work well with Elements or Rings? Could I somehow get by with one and not regret it, you think? Any recommendations would be greatly appreciated!

I will keep in mind to try to avoid getting locked into a painful solution. Oh, by the way, I'm very curious about the compromises and pre-planning that you had to do, Ronin1973.


To get external audio into your Eurorack case, it's best to have something to boost the levels to synth level. There are several modules with this amplifying feature. Most manufacturers with a full product line offer a product that will do the job: Intellijel, Roland, etc.

My general VCA is an Intellijel Quad VCA (two of them actually). The module is very flexible and offers a lot of control over shaping of the CV inputs. It also functions as a mono mixer and has a boost feature on every VCA if you need a bit more volume or want a little overdrive.

My path through modular was this in a nutshell:
Download a copy of VCV rack and begin getting familiar with the nuts and bolts of patching the basic modules.
Put together my first rack on modular grid.
Go through SEVERAL virtual set-ups, tweak, research (lots of Youtube videos and manual reading), tweak again, start over, tweak, read... etc.
Break down two cases worth of modules I'd like to one case of modules that would work as a starting point.
Hold breath and order first round of modules. Then order additional modules planned for case one. Between each order I played with what I had for some hands-on experience and then made a qualitative judgment if things were going to plan. I adjusted what to order next based on observations with previous order and some assumptions/errors that I made.

I bought an Expert Sleepers FH2 early on. I'm not sure if it was a good decision. I found trying to flow between Ableton and Eurorack to be a bit clunky. The FH2 has to be configured before loading Ableton. So if you want to change the set-up as you're jamming, you have to stop, quit out of everything, change, then reload. If you never change your set-up then you're good to go. But if you're trying to take advantage of envelopes, LFOs, etc in the FH2... it's rather clunky. I found keeping everything inside of the case to be better for my workflow. I'd hope to save a few dollars by relying on the DAW... but I just didn't like it. I still have the FH2 as the firmware is constantly being upgraded.

The biggest compromise is budget. There's a ton of stuff I want...there's only budget enough for a fraction of it. :)

This is my current set-up. There's a Pittsburgh microsequencer that I pulled out because I wasn't using it and didn't like it. There is also a Behringer Neutron and Behringer Model D that float as they don't need to be in the rack.
ModularGrid Rack

I'll probably add a third case within the next year. The 2HP reverb and delay are okay. But I want stronger modules with more modulation options. I'd like a 1010 Music BitBox, more modulation sources including a Zulu trigger sequencer, some switches, faders, a pair of matching Dixie II+ oscillators, and possibly another full sequencer as the Toolbox is great but not great for chaining sequences into songs.


@Ronin1973 Very cool rack! Lots of tasty stuff there, I like that set of filters. 14U, with 2 Intellijel rows and a TON of Quadratts, that's nice. Although I'm not sure I could hang with that crowded BL Mixer.

@ecstatic I recently installed the 1U Audio I/O on my rack, and I'll never look back. Having proper 1/4" jacks makes using the modular much less awkward. If you want to input sounds from a guitar or other instrument frequently this is a good thing to have on your rack. I also have Mutable Ears, and I also really LOVE it. The piezo output from my acoustic guitar is much lower than line level, so I need both the input +20db and the Ears +18db to bring the piezo pickup fully up to modular levels. I started out with Ears as my only input (with a mic), and yes, you can just patch that straight into Rings, or other resonators/filters, and get great sounding effects that way! The envelope follower on Ears is perfect for getting interesting expression CV out of your acoustic instruments, I highly recommend this module if you want to mic acoustic things or control your modular with sound.

Regarding VCAs:
That Intellijel QuadVCA is a good choice overall, Ronin1972 even has 2 because VCAs are so useful, but the max gain is only +6db (with the boost switch). Those Exp/Lin continuous knobs are more useful in practice than I had expected they would be, very good for fine-tuning how punchy things are.
However, also take a look at the Mutable Veils, which is a very similar quadVCA. Veils has much more gain than the QuadVCA, up to +20db in Exp mode, and so you can use Veils as a line-level input - or 4!


As always, thanks for all your valuable ideas!

Here is another draft. The modules in the top row are candidates for what to get initially, and the rest (including the modules below the case) are potential alternatives to modules in the top row, or things that I'm simply interested in for later.

ModularGrid Rack

Any feedback would be greatly appreciated. :)

Here are some specific questions:

  • FH-2 vs. Export Sleepers: Do you think I need the option to record audio through this module (given that I want to give a Ableton Live-centric workflow a go, using CV Tools/Silent Way/Volta)?
  • ES-3 vs. ES-8: Is there something that ES-3 provides that the ES-8 do not?
  • Elements: Will Elements need to be tuned?
  • Frames: Can Frames serve as a mixer and a VCA for this small system, with some room to grow with the modules in the second row, or would it make sense to have something like Stages and Veils instead?
  • Cables etc: I'm considering getting a EricaSynths 2x126HP monster case (140mm deep). Do you have any recommendations for cable lengths, quantities, types (such as stack cables), inline mults, or manufacturers?
  • Output: I'm thinking that I can listen to the output of the system through my computer initially, and get an audio output as a convenience later on. Do you think that could work?
  • Mordax DATA: Will I benefit from this module (in terms of exploring, learning and making things more intuitive) working with these modules?
  • 4ms Spectral Multiband Resonator: What other modules would make sense to add if this module is added to the system?
  • Effects: Are there any effect modules that springs to mind, that can do things that are not conveniently done through Ableton Live's effects?

Also, if anyone knows whether or not I can emulate Ears (including the envelope follower) using software, that would be interesting to know. :)

Cheers!


Oh, I just noticed that there is a CV Envelope Follower in CV Tools:

https://www.ableton.com/en/blog/cv-tools-live-coming-soon/

Besides the convenience of Ears (the tactile surface, the possibility of not having to go through the computer, the hands-on experience), what are its benefits? Will the analog/digital conversions of going through the computer have a negative effect in this regard as well?


Ears is mainly a contact mic module. Its main point is its built-in contact mic for creating bonks, scrapes, etc. As an external input module, it's missing lower impedence settings (1 Mohm only), and requires jumper changes to change its preset attack/release times and input sensitivity level. Contrast that with something such as Doepfer's venerable A-119: variable levels and thresholds on the front panel with no presets, and two different inputs for either line-level signals or low-level instruments or microphones on appropriate jacks. As someone who prefers my contact mics on the other end of a cable, this seems to be the convenient option.

As for ES-3 vs ES-8...yes, you want USB and you definitely want the four return channels. USB is much easier to deal with in many settings, whereas a lightpipe-only interface like the ES-3 largely anchors your modular to a fixed position that has an ADAT lightpipe I/O somewhere. And those four returns aren't just for recording your system's output; they can also serve functions such as allowing the modular to work as your session clock, sending triggering signals from the modular back into the DAW to allow the synth to determine actions in software, sending modulation from the modular back into the software for use there, etc.

Last, cables. Get them. Get LOTS of them. If you think you have enough cables, you probably don't have enough cables. And use inline mults; 126 hp x 2 is still small enough that I'd recommend not using passive mult modules in the case in order to squeeze a little more function in. And buffered mults really serve their purpose when you've got to spread a CV/gate/trig out across 5, 6 etc modules; just splitting a CV between 2-3 VCOs, for example...that doesn't need a buffered mult with the vast majority of VCO modules these days.