Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Survey of Modular Folk, Summer 2014

This summer, with funding from Wesleyan University graduate program in Experimental Music, I embarked on a journey to characterize the modular synthesize industry.  To do this, I participated in two events: the Tokyo Festival of Modular Synthesizers; and Control Voltage Fair, in New York.

I had long had a bitter taste from such fairs, because of poor sales at the event, and also a certain loudness in the bazaar that is due to competing demonstrators.  For this reason, I would only go with a radical, experimental mentality, almost performative.  Also, due to the scholarly funding, I could adopt a researcher's attitude towards the technology, akin to Georgina Born's ethnography of IRCAM.  Thus, my tack and proposal was to research the current culture of modular synthesizers, through the aesthetics of booth (beeth?) presentations, and any techno-shamanic folklore passed around by participants at these events.

Part of my strategy at these events, was to be aloof to the competitive sales atmosphere, by trying to present the radical ideas that my business has been known for over the years.  Paper circuits as experimental prototype formed the throat of this thrust.  I have been working for several months on a new line of euro-rack modules, and since this is exactly this format that predominates at modular fairs, I focused on a paper display for the new pieces.

Euro-rack is a standardized format for modular synthesis, using mono-mini plugs and cords, a "4U" height, and most importantly, a bi-polar power supply of +12 and -12 volts DC.  My other two businesses, Ciat-Lonbarde and Shbobo, are based on uni-polar power supplies of 9 volts and 3.3 volts respectively; the 9 volts is for analog from a single battery or wallwart, and 3.3 volts is a USB digital device.  In porting concepts over to the euro-rack specification, I decided to create a new business, named "Ieaskul F. Mobenthey".  All these names come from a single drawing from 2002, titled "Stores of the Mall", that I hope to display proudly on the release of the new modules.  It is really a format for a bantam business; the Stores of the Mall is a 'tent' that generates new sub-stores, rather than trying to maintain a single aesthetic at the locus of a singular business.

To manifest "Stores of the Mall" in physical form, I decided to build some conceptual synthesizers out of cardboard boxes and extremely fine, Japanese "washi" paper, provided by my mother-in-law at her business, Tapiro Creative, LLC.  Each box represents a separate business; Ciat-Lonbarde and Shbobo are finely lettered signage on wonderfully textured earth-tones.  However, it is the box for Ieaskul F. Mobenthy that received the most attention, because it is the most hypothetical at the moment.  I used bright green washi to wrap a box about the size of a small euro-rack cabinet.  Then I rendered the current working designs of Ieaskul's designs, and printed them on cards that were affixed to the front of the box, thus making a virtual, paper modular for display at my booth.  Also on display was a working paper circuit prototype of the innards of one of these designs, further enhancing the radical paper motif.

Stores of the Mall: the radical washi synth
On to the events!  First was the Tokyo Festival of Modular, on June 7 and 8.  The venue, Super Deluxe, is a mid-size basement club serving cold beer and snacks.  Having no raised stage, the "headliners" tables spilled out into the space, which was littered with many black-draped merchandise tables.  Of course, there were many local Japanese manufacturers, that I had never encountered before, making some very enigmatic equipment.  Also, a good sampling of American and a few European synth makers were there.

Tokyo Festival of Modular
Of course, the name "Festival of Modular" implies that it will feature modules, most probably in the euro-rack format.  However, there were a few standalone type instruments, and my booth, except for its "conceptual paper eurorack" was in the minority category of handhelds and unique boxes.
Stores of the Mall @ Tokyo Festival of Modular
Kirito at the Little Bits station
The sound was overpowering, extremely loud cacophony of mixed sequences and other blips and bloops.  I regret that I had not recorded the sound, for the pain it had caused my ears may have become bliss when re-listening at low volumes on a home stereo.  There, I could analyze it and perhaps enjoy it like an atmosphere of ambient frogs on a hot summer night.

Each station, representing a store or manufacturer or other vendor of synthesizer modularity, would normally be setting up some sort of "jam" consisting of sequenced pulses.  The use of sequencer modules is predominant.  Some of the more interesting stations, however, focused on idiosyncratic, non-linear and un-striated sound assemblages.  I chose to focus my attention on the first island, a grouping of four stations, three from America and one from Russia.

Scott Jaeger
Scott is a resident of Seattle, where he runs "The Harvestman," a series of euro-rack designs that have interesting names and function.  For example, the "Piston Honda" is a sort of 3-dimensional wavetable synthesizer, but its name suggests more mundane origins; did Scott's Honda Civic inspire a sophisticated synthesis for its emulation?  He said yes, but we didn't go into details.  Scott spent some time in graduate school, where he designed and implemented these modules.

Another research area was an esoteric Soviet synthesizer, the Polivoks.  Scott worked with the designer Vladimir Kuzmin to bring back the "bizarre, agressive, and entirely unique character" in euro-rack format.  The filter, for example, uses no external capacitors, and relies solely on the non-linear and contingent capacitance inside the silicon components.  It looks like Scott is skilled at compartmentalizing his business into unique sub-groups with strong identities.

Each of the participants from afar, due to baggage restrictions, brought only a small suitcase worth of modules, about one typical segment of a euro-rack system.  Thus they chose only the most important modules, and it is a comparative analysis of each distillation that proved most insightful.  Harvestman's aesthetic is uniform in color, with orange knobbage over an aluminum background.  However, there is a certain pragmatism in the layout, reflecting the idiosyncratic nature of the modules themselves.

All of Harvestman's aluminum face-plates are manufactured in Cincinnati.  To some collectors of euro-rack modules, a consistent aluminum appearance is very important, harkening back to the earliest days of Doepfers.  Since I am considering using other materials in face-plates, I always ask makers' opinions on material.  Scott finds the company in Cincinnati very convenient and cheap, but says that he personally has no problem with alternative materials.   There are about three reasons to use alternative materials in the face-plate: simply to introduce a new color and instant recognition to one's brand; because aluminum is conductive, some touch sensitive surfaces need to be implemented as circuit boards; circuit boards as a material are lighter, and I would say more immanent in that the circuit is its own container...  

For more thoughts on manufacturing, I looked across the table to another resident of the Pacific Northwest, this time from Portland:

Josh Holley

Josh is president of Malekko Heavy Industry, which makes some guitar pedals, and many euro-rack modules.  Josh is skilled at networking with other designers, to license and adapt modules for a maximum variety under one roof.  In fact, his main business now seems to be the Dark Space manufacturing center, that offers its services to all synthesizer designers to assemble their product, and even ship it for them.  Thus skills in integration are what makes his business tick.

A glance at the Malekko distillation yields a sense of uniformity, whilst representing many different lines.  Each different line, or sub-brand of Malekko, is differentiated by subtle appearances of changing fonts, knob size, or most importantly, layout decisions.  A foremost example is the layout of Wiard modules, which segregate knobs on top from patch points below, whereas many other designers choose to integrate knobs and jacks, so that functionality flows smoothly from manual control to patching.

Cyrus Makarechian
Another integrator, Cyrus, runs the new Muffwiggler store, in Los Angeles.  He shares business duties with Mike McGrath, who created the namesake of the store, the Muffwiggler forum.  This forum is devoted to analog synthesizers and synthesis in general, and it remains one of the most heavily trodden places to discuss such topics on the internet.  It was a natural outgrowth to start an internet store, that showcases all the mainstream modules, but according to Cyrus, it also sells the more idiosyncratic and esoteric modules, found by combing through all the accumulated forum discussions.

A look at Cyrus' suitcase sized rack shows many different kinds of modules, constructed of different materials (clear plastic, circuit board, as well as traditional aluminum), some with enigmatically sparse legend and thus an intuitive demand on performer.  In representing a divers forum of synthesynthesists, a most pragmatic look is achieved, and also the sense that Cyrus may find sublime new connections due to the overlapping philosophies.

For those makers who chose not to build euro-rack modules, there are more options, in enclosure shape and size, besides those already mentioned choice of faceplate material, font, and other legend features.  Here's a synth maker to watch out for, from Peru, Atomosynth:

Alfredo Aliaga
Alfredo's modules can actually fit in euro-rack, but he chooses to display them as standalone instruments.  The combination of smoked plexiglass, clean etched lines, and sometimes some lime green plastic, make them quite unique.  It's like my son, he is addicted to fishing, and we go to the fishing tackle store.  Bass is this ultimate fish because it angrily snaps at colorful plastic jelly and ASMR producing lures, lures that ultimately serve the fisherman a dose of addictive candy unboxing as well.  Go Alfredo!

My own brand is marked by a pronounced lack of candy, although there is good wood, sauced generously with tung oil.  However, I do not have a business card, and although some triangular poster cards still exist from previous days, I was lacking any paraphernalia, so when constructing washi paper circuits at Tapiro Creative, LLC, I re-purposed some fancy calligraphy cards from the trash.  My mother-in-law had experimented with layout of a phrase, "learning the sound of rain," and although she wished the world to not see her failed calligraphy, i found the black brush strokes fertile ground for ballpoint insertion of circuit diagrams:

business card for ciat-lonbarde

Here's some more happenings at Tokyo Festival of Modular

5G, a Tokyo Modular store, brought a wall!
Hikari, nice vintage 50s looking cases
I think this is "JMT," a Japanese Analog/Noise Booth
My wife and son jamming little bits n' Korg
Headliner: Keith Fullerton Whitman
A fine threesome of electronic performers...
Synth T-shirts: Merchandise about merchandise

Modular event number two was the Control Voltage Fair, held in Brooklyn, on June 21, 2014.  The specific location was Ten Eyck street, a real portal Hague of the new world, crammed in between an oily river and a bunch of Chinese merchants, it also contained many nose-rings and kindly death metalists, as well as other fuzzy burlap berets and various accordion toters...  Brooklyn, on a cool day, during a "river to river" music festival was a great place to have an open door to a dark warehouse spilling out loud modular sounds.  In all of the following pictures, note the completely different light, it being a natural, blue-sky day.  Super Deluxe in Tokyo, a basement at night, had great spot-lighting, but the warehouse in Brooklyn had no artificial lighting at all, just skylights and garage door.

old industrial Brooklyn: site of Control Voltage Fair
Speaking of loud modular sounds, having endured the cacophony of the Tokyo Festival of Modular, I had all but sworn to completely "go conceptual" and leave the amplifier off at my table of this event.  Turns out, the space was about twice as tall and half as populated with beeth, so there was a little bit more room for sound.  Thanks to Abby and Matt who offered me a K8 PA piece last minute there.  I did find the sonic environment here a little bit less aggressive, and the open garage door afforded natural light and escaped many slap echoes, also there was more of a holistic view on synthesis, with video processing and conceptual emphasis strong at the Harvestworks booth:

Brian Moran/Adam Kendall, video processing modular
I set up booth similar to the Tokyo Fest, with much paper concepts, but also a quite clearer sounding demonstration of touch-organs.  Next to me was Mark Verbos, of Verbos Electronics.  You know it's great how names work; Mark is not a loud or loquacious dude, but his Buchla adaptations do feature the verbose legend of the original.  Or at least verbose compared to my stuff and other enigma variations.  Mark was a nice guy and I enjoyed learning about his clean, professional aesthetic.  He's repaired many Buchlas, and from this he got great ideas for his own euro-rack adaptations.  Like Roman's work, the Mark's use mini-plugs solely, shunning again the structuralist impulse of banana separation.  Also the modules have a strong clean aesthetic, with the classy pin-lines of the original, but a little more strength of color contrast; he uses blocks of black ink  next to bare aluminum to help break up the monotony.  Note his brand-shirt, grey of aluminum, black of silkscreen, white accents and red knobs.  Very clean brand vision:

Mark Verbos
Control, the store in Brooklyn, is another strongly designed brand.  In fact, the co-owner Daren went to graphic design school in Iowa.  They collect all types of "mostly" euro-rack modules, and have a great showroom that you can come in and play around for hours.  To CVF they brought shirts, cards and a nice stand of all sorts of modules:

Pittsburgh Modular and Make Noise had a new piece of paraphernalia: coozies:

Pittsburgh Modular
Now, Meme Antenna, I had heard about before.  I was talking with a film-maker about wooden synthesizers for sale in Japan.  I had never really sold synths there, even though we go there every year to see my wife's family.  Adachi Tomomi understood completely, and informed me that I would never sell wooden electronic instruments in Japan; he pulled out some of his own instruments, made in tupperware, and declared them more viable on the Japanese market, because they approach the cool, club-like industrial texture of powder-black metal cases.  I went to Japan to find out more about the flaw in wooden electronics.  My hypothesis was that the "ki" of wood is an ancient one, used for housing fine clothing, family relics, and of course, ancestral ghosts and natural spirits in shrine usages; electronic synthesizers are related to ballistics, communication and war.  The two morphic resonances are difficult to mix, but over the years this encasure will become easier as a process of mutual negotiation is played out.  One reason for visiting Japan was to participate in my wife's grandfather's 37th death anniversary; this is an important year for according to Shinto, he may now become part of an ancestral spirit, losing individual identity for the sake of a more powerful family entity.  Perhaps there is a similar process unfolding in materials for electronics, as wood, metal, plastic, and silicon can be blended more and more.  I saw a little bit of wood in Tokyo Festival of Modular, but it only is used to emphasize a certain vintage feel.

The film-maker I was speaking with hinted me on to Meme Antenna, a store in Brooklyn who sells the “Lio&Linn-wood+metal-," a fine walnut case for euro-rack modules.  I met the owner and had a wonderful chat with him.  The store seems to be tucked into a cute hipster/loft "mini-mall" in Bedford, judging from the tin ceiling.

Meme Antenna
What is the fate of euro-rack?  I should have gotten into it five years ago, perhaps even ten years ago, but I'm happy with staying out for so long, working with wooden synths, single-rails, powered by battery.  I did a lot of experiments with connectors other than mini-plugs and banana jacks; the best were the brass nodes, that reacted to touch connections with intuitive consequences.  I now dive into my euro-rack work with a few new modules; more on that in later posts.  Musing on all the hubbub over this format, one friend of mine postulated that it's all going to a sort of big drum machine, a steady state beat box.  I hope not, and I know that modulations are the exit from steadiness.  The website of Steady State Fate has a fine essay on this topic, about initial conditions, the butterfly effect, and attractors et al.  Ironically, it was SSF that provided the main beat of Control Voltage Fair, a two-step bass and splash that made me dance bouncing up and down.  I heard every twist of the tempo knob; unlike techno performers who keep it steady, Andrew Morelli was undaunted and moved it around up and down, and made me re-evaluate my habitual cool-boy dance bounce, and ask, what am I doing here?

an omen of the future: steady state rhythms
Apologies to any synth makers who were at these events, kindred spirits, whom I didn't cover in these pages.  There were many great ones, but this comparative survey has wound its course and I go to my pillow to rest and plan triangular oscillators and rounded chaotic integrators.


  1. So glad to hear about your new company. Any idea when you will be releasing these? Mark me down for one of each :)

  2. Only issue with the article (and with the format itself) is that Eurorack is 3U, not 4U.

  3. Peter you are an awesome and special man!
    By the way that is Benton Bainbridge in the picture with me-Brian Moran

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