If you're interested in electronic music production then it's probably fair to say, you're interested in synths. At dBs Music we specialise in teaching Electronic Music Production courses and of course, we have the finest tutors in the Industry. So it was only right that recently our synth obsessed tutors from dBs Music headed over to Berlin for the incredible Superbooth event, checking out the latest and greatest innovations in electronic music technology. Below is their report back of the best gear on show...
1. Intellijel - Tetrapad
Matt Ward: "Intellijel, quite possibly the mercedes of the modular world, their VCA we would recommend to anyone! The Tetrapad is an intuitive 4 column (or 8 momentary push buttons with 8 banks) controller. Tetrapad is a multimode performance module with chord mode that can be easily inverted or rotated through notes.
"Pressure pads now has a serious competitor and with the addition of 4 x LFO’s and the ability to chain these badboys up, Intellijel have a beaut on their hands, the response is incredible and build quality is superb."
Price - TBC
2. Noise Engineering - Basimilus Interitas Alter
Matt: "LA based outfit with so much to offer, but not enough word count to cover. So, I wanted to discuss their Digital Percussion module. With only 10hp footprint, this quirky module instantly grabbed our attention. With drums forming the scaffold for most electronic musicians, this is a must for start up or advanced modular heads!
"Product developer Stephen McCaul (aka Chief Noisemaker) patiently answered all my questions and more. From the outset Stephen was superclever, superfriendly and whipped up a demo triggered by their equally great numeric repititor module in seconds
"The thing we haven’t seen on any other drum modules of this size was the flexibility of sound set and the colossal sonics the thing delivered. The morph parameter is easy to morph directly between a solid kick and noise, with simple 3 mode switches to flick between bass, alto, treble and skin, liquid and metal. Thus, giving you ultimate control over solid techno percussion through to authentic sounding latino percussion, bongos, snares. All CVable, crunchable and harmonically rich delivered with the performer in mind. An absolute must for rhythm junkies."
Price - £280 - £340
3. Audio Damage - Audio Buffer / Looper
Matt: "It was the owner of Audio Damage, Chris Randall that gave us a sweet demo of the latest product line. What a hilarious chap and the focus and passion he puts into his products can be seen and heard from the off.
"The focus and drive of this bit of kit is all about performance. These guys are basically intelligent DJs that are major contributors to modular presence within mainstream clubs and festivals - Audio Damage is winning here!
"This looper was the biz, basically a one push button that could seamlessly record a whole modular rig patch and allow the user to begin a new one, remix , tweak, cut, loop, stutter, whatever, you name it. This was just one of the functions alongside some excellent beat repeat style functionality and more. The firmware is still in progress but when this thing comes out it’s going to be a must for electronic performers. Fantastic! We also reccomed you head over to the Audio Damage website to check out a few free plugins on offer!"
Price - TBC
4. WMD Tamborine
Matt: "Alex Anderson from WMD Denver, Colorado was brilliant as he was ready to leave the event for the night but still stuck around to demo the latest WMD kit for us.
"The yet untitled percussion module ‘Alex asked us what it should be called’ The initial name is tamborine. Taking some elements of the rings and proton modules but focussing largely on percussion this module was every electronic producers dream.
"Sweeping through a wide array of sampled sounds e.g. Alex mentioned that they had recently sampled the dropping of keys back in the lab. This wasn’t aimed at recreating standard 808/909 sound sets but all about stepping outside of the box with metallic, glassy percussion with stacks of scope to add variation. Out in spring 2018."
Price - TBC
5. Music Thing Modular - Magnetophone
Matt: "It wasn’t until day two that we stumbled across the ‘Magnetophone’ [second row from top on the far left hand side] from Tom Whitwell’s Music Thing Modular brand. we're unsure whether this is a prototype or available as we cannot find a pic anywhere. So we thought we would include a pic of the entire Music Thing rig.
"In short, one of the highlights was a mono cassette tape head in eurorack format with an additional tapehead designed to write with not dissimilar to using a pen. At this point aside from a flashback from 20 years ago that the City and Guilds sound engineering curriculum had come back to haunt me. I started scratching some kicks and snares with a pen! You effectively have control of frequency by tilting the pen towards you so the head is at a right angle to the tape or full frequency response by holding it flat . What fun, who needs real pens when you can write like Q-Bert!
"Less is more with this module, it’s down to some clever use of electrical tape and the connection between man and machine. Hats off to Tom Whitwell who continues to make affordable accessible open source hardware for eurorack users. Now, I finally have use for all that old reel to reel tape I’ve been storing in the loft for years. Bravo! Thonk DIY are the main outlet for music thing modular so head over there for more info or contact Tom via his excellent website."
Price - TBC
6. Polyend Seq MIDI Step Sequencer
Matt: "This caught our eye as what at first glance appeared to be a huge black monome. On closer inspection, an extremely equipped sequencer with an array of ins and outs. So, firstly the accessibility of this module was the key feature. No wires in sight just lots of lovely silicone buttons….. Who doesn’t like buttons that light up? (256 of them to be precise) or 32 steps, 8 polyphony, 256 pattern storage and a lovely wooden finish.
"The key attraction of this device is the ‘buttons yay’ and the interface which comes as a breakout box and houses 8 x Gate, Pitch, Velocity, Modulation outs and connectivity via standard MIDI (x2) and USB. There is a small screen designed not to cause distraction during creative milestones!
"Aside from being able to control any eurorack set up there are some funky play modes and step control such as roll, ping pong, polyrhythmic and polymetric. Price tag is expensive but you get a lot for your money and the hands on control is plentiful."
Price - £999
7. Novation PEAK
Matt: "Although the main highlights were from the smaller independents. Major brands also made an appearance. Novation launced an 8 voice analog/hybrid desktop synth that is pretty damn powerful. Boasting 24 Oscillators and a high powered processor called FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) After speaking with the Novation rep, they explained this works differently to old DSP systems like Creamware’s Pulsar etc in that it can handle single processing rather than the duo / quad set ups some will be familiar with.
"In truth, we were not too impressed with animate buttons as this seemed like a bolt on super bass button that might put some analog purists off. However, the sound engine is blooming lovely and the attention to detail on patches you cannot argue with. There’s something for everyone from gnarly neuro basses through to subtle high register strings. Not everyone’s cup of tea but out of the box this thing can hold its own against some of other polyphonic desktops such as the Virus and Deepmind. Decent FX and modulation options that are somewhat limited but can be customised or edited further by diving into the menu. Certainly worth a look, it’s the Bass Station's big brother!"
Price - £1429
8. God’s Box Humpback VCF
Phin: "Proving price is no predictor of awesomeness, the Humpback multimode VCF from God’s Box and Thonk comes in at just £85 and yet is the filter I’ve spent the last year looking for. I’m spoiled with a vintage 1978 Korg MS20, but that filter (a 6dB/oct Salan Key pair that breaks up like nothing else) has been so copied in Eurorack that everyone has one now, and though it’s unbeatable for aggression, it’s less effective at warmth or ‘throat’ - that mouthy honk you get on, say, an old 303.
"I’d been looking round for a complement to this (the XAOC Belgrad is superb) but hadn’t even heard of the Humpback and just idly patched it in to test a Music Thing Turing mk2. The next 20 minutes were then spent with me gawping at how fantastic the Humpback sounded. Check out Matt and my video of us playing around with it.
"You get real throat on the LP output, incredible break up in hi-res on the HP, and the best Notch I’ve heard (actually, pretty much the only Notch you’re going to hear because most Notches don’t sound like anything much - this one really blasts!)."
Price - £85
9. RYO: Aperture LPG
Phin: "Proving to be the perfect counterpart to the Humpback is the equally hilariously good value Aperture from Ryo, cashing in at £85 again. If East Coast is your thing, you’re going to go Humpback, but if you’re more of a West Coast Buchla freak, then you’re down with LPG. No, not the camping stoves.
"Where Bob Moog was making VCF > VCA > ADSR set ups for keyboard players to hold down long Sustained notes, Don Buchla was making Low Pass Gates to combine all three, for ‘pinging’ from a sequencer.
"The difference is really subtle and, like compression, you won’t get it from a written description: the only way to know what it really sounds like is to hear one. But, again like compression, once you hear a good one, you’ll know, and you’ll be hooked. The best way to describe it is to imagine your LPG’s cutoff control is also your VCA’s volume control, and that both are popped shut simultaneously from the same fast EG decay. Whatever, the upshot is that these are the nuts for any kind of percussive sound, tuned or untuned.
"There are a few contenders (both Make Noise’s Optomix and Pittsburgh Modular’s LPG are excellent) but for me, the Aperture takes the crown. It’s wet, it’s pingy, it’s big and bouncy, it’s smooth but raunchy...and crank that Q up too far and your entire cochlear will disintegrate."
Price - £85
10. Leaf Audio: Microphonic Soundbox
Phin: "Well, this was a turn out. 1800 mile round trip to Superbooth and my top pick was a balsa wood box with some screws in it. Matt loved it too. Why?
"Truth is, we love modular. No, really, we love modular. But acoustic sounds are more complex, more controllable, and more non-linear. Leaf have some amazing modules and equally amazing kits but what made this stand out was the complexity of the results vs the simplicity of the design. Yes, it is exactly what you think you’re seeing: sandpaper, a stone, three springs, two welding rods and some strips of fibre glass.
"The Soundbox grew out of it’s designer, musician and sound engineer Manuel Richter’s own DIY box he built years back for experimental sound design, so it’s built entirely from a musician’s perspective from the start. The incredible thing is how it sounds. Everything has a contact mic attached to the box, which you then run through Ableton, and it comes out sounding like modules.
"Burst generator patched to granular micro-sounds? Scratch a stone on the sandpaper! Chaotic linear FM on a dual VCO pair? Bow that welding rod! Karplus? Boing a spring! Buchla Bongos through a vactrol Low Pass Gate? Twang the fibre glass Kalimba!
"If you don’t believe how good this is, first, check out YouTube on this thing, and second, read Brian Eno’s essays on muscle control vs mental control in music tech. This was the surprise no-hoper from left field that left the competition for dead. Very much like Daniel LaRusso from The Karate Kid."
Price - TBC
11. Malekko Heavy Instruments: Voltage Block/Varigate 8+
Phin: "Matt and I both need a sequencer, so we were stoked at the chance to test a bunch of them at Superbooth. I play keys and Matt DJs so we both wanted immediacy and playability. We both already love Make Noise’s René, now ubiquitous in Eurorack, but it’s only 1 channel of CV: I need a multichannel counterpart for my counterpoint! I love the ergonomics, immediacy and Ratcheting (Berlin School, yeah!) of Intellijel’s Metropolis but again, it’s only single channel, so I was set on the Stillson Hammer, a very capable 4 channel seq from Harvestman. Sadly, they were never at their booth so we couldn’t talk, but I did try it and...it was good...loads of features...but...I just didn’t find it that intuitive. This was a surprise as I was expecting to love it. Give it a go, let us know what you think.
"Mildly disappointed, Matt and I went back on the hunt and ended up at Malekko’s booth ostensibly to look at their Dual Borg Filter. We were lucky in that they were demo’ing that with the Varigate 8+ and Voltage Block and as soon as we got on those, we knew we’d found something pretty special.
"These two are actually separate modules: the Varigate is a trigger sequencer in 26hp so it’s gate-only (OK, there are 2 CV channels) but it’s predominantly designed for triggering enveloped rhythmic events—at which it excels, with 16 steps over 8 channels, per-step step length, ratcheting and probability, performance programming and a bunch more. In contrast, the Voltage Block is 8 channels of CV-only (designed for melodic control) in 20hp with just basic clocking and quantization. However, in combination, the whole really is greater than the sum of their parts.
"Probably the most important part of getting the Varigate Voltage Block combo is to stop thinking lineally, and start to think in parallel. At any point, you’re not looking at all 8 steps of channel x (like with normal sequencers) but instead at at step x of all 8 channels. It sounds like a subtle difference, but it really does change the way you approach what you’re doing - and isn’t that what good instruments should do?
"At £510 for the Varigate and another £340 for the Voltage Block the only real issue is the combined cost (£850 in 46hp). That said, it’s still cheaper, more usable, and more featured than two Stillson Hammers, and a lot cheaper than 8 Metropoles!"
Price - £510 Variagate and £340 Voltage Black
12. Winter Modular Eloquencer
Phin: "So, we really liked the Malekko above. We then wandered over to Befaco’s booth to talk about their (brilliant) 4-Quadrant Multiplier the A*B+C. In the corner of their rig was a new seq I’d not seen before so we got talking...and this was another of the wonderfully chaotic happy accidents you get at Superbooth.
"Winter Modular are a partner company with Befaco, run by designer Elio Flores and this was his brand new, just-out-of-beta creation, Eloquencer. It rocks. Essentially, it duplicates the combined functionality of the Varigate and Voltage Block in 38hp but without the sliders. There are slight differences of course (this has a very nice addition to the standard channel length function which allows you to define both start and stop step) but at heart these are very similar systems.
"The main advantage of the Eloquencer, aside from the reduced footprint, is the price: £560 (compared with £860 for the Malekko combo), with the only real disadvantage being the loss of physical sliders...but then you get a beautiful OLED screen and visual feedback per CV channel which the Malekko lacks. Eloquencer might also be a better choice if you prefer the more traditional ‘serial’ approach as opposed to Malekkos ‘parallel’ one. As for me...I’m still completely undecided, they’re both legends in the making.
Price - £560