Tech Thoughts: “Spielsachen” – growing smaller

We’ve been going through ways to make Spielsachen more practical (and maybe powerful) without affecting its size. But what if I actually wanted to reduce size, by a very considerable amount?

Excursion: Compact Creations

I got inspired for this by the Compact Creations video series by Ricky Tinez:

In this series, Ricky looks at small, portable setups for making music on the fly. Package requirements include:

  • small number of devices (usually two or three),
  • easy to wire up,
  • easy to carry.

From an architectural standpoint, Ricky usually says he’ll need something for samples, something for drums, something for a synth voice and a sequencer to sequence all of that. Modular content is definitely not a requirement, although recent publications have most of the time included modular things (in an Intellijel Backpack Modular case).

Sounds like a sensible starting point for a portable Spielsachen setup to me!

Requirements. Again.

Taking Ricky’s approach and combining it with the underlying Spielsachen idea, we get:

20191113_120435_Roßtalerweg.jpg

We’re clear on the performance orientation. This is not a setup to mainly write an album on, but to play a gig or session on. However, we obviously have different opinions on what that means. Ricky, with more of a DJ/producer backgrounds, is happy to play with MPC-style trigger pads and similar things. I, on the other hand, have grown up since early childhood with (upright and grand) pianos, so playing something intuitively requires full-sized keys – even those dreaded minikeys require additional brain activity that gets deducted from the immediacy of musical creation. And don’t even get me started with playing chords on (MPC, Tempest, whatever) pads or small touch things…so I’d put a full-size keyboard in as a derived soft requirement.

For the actual features, I opted to combine some modular content, some synths and some samples (whatever that may mean, but samples in and by itself is easy to complete, as a recent video shows). As long as I have a somewhat decent modular setup and an analogue or analogue-style synth voice and the ability to play a few oneshots or loops, I’m happy. What’s “somewhat decent” for a modular setup? We shall see.

So what does “high portability” mean? Quick setup and teardown – below or around 15 minutes shall be the target. For the size when packed, let’s use the standard airplace carryon standard. Which immediately means that a 84TE Eurorack case is cool, a 104TE one is not. I have a nice backpack/bag which I received as swag at last year’s nVidia GTC (great event, btw). Its interior measures roughly 460x330x100 when not stretched. Let’s use that as a soft target.

Systems Engineering

Looking at typical feature sets, UX considerations and requirements, I’d break it down into a setup with three components:

  1. A sampling groovebox. Those typically have a lot of sequencer tracks, some trigger pads, ability to play back samples and sample loops, and can control external gear via MIDI/USB.
  2. A keyboard with full-sized keys. Maybe with an added (analogue) synth voice.
  3. A small modular case. Again, “small” means “not exceeding 84TE”. Loaded with stuff that complements the other things.

So we’re ready to develop some configurations. Note that the modules selected will serve more as examples, rather than as definitive best choices for a configuration. Also note that I didn’t look at module depth (as they only serve as examples).

Configurations

#1: MPCLive, Minilogue, NiftyCASE

System_1a_814_407.jpg

For the first component, I’m picking the Akai MPCLive. As the keyboard, the Minilogue is something which I have and like. Finally, there’s a NiftyCase (84TE), which includes PSU, two-channel MIDI interface and an output two 1/4 (although this sums it from two 1/8 inputs in the top row. I’d modify that to go to two 1/4 outs on the back).

Connection is easy. Minilogue MIDI to Akai via USB, Akai to Eurorack MIDI. Minilogue feeds the stereo mixer in the NiftyCase (as all of the Eurorack components do), and NiftyCase out goes in stereo to MPCLive. MPCLive main out goes to FOH, additional MPC outs can feed the NiftyCase for processing.

For modules, I’ve picked something to both enhance and complement the other devices. I already have a one nice mono voice, and with the Doepfer A-111-6 I get a second one. I picked the Folktek Conduit for all the strange stuff that the MPC is not really good at, and the same goes for the processors, (Mimeophon, the DiRT filter (which is more like a distortion/multiplier than a filter, and a PicoBBD added because you can never have too many BBDs). For control signals, there’s the QBit Bloom as a step sequencer with and edge, and the Zlob Diode Chaos for some unpredicatbility. Finally, the Minibrute also offers some control via Eurorack-style connections, so that path is available, too.

I’m fairly sure that you can get additional trigger paths from the MPC to the Eurorack thing by using samples of short pulses. The MPC has six audio outs. So I could use two to go to FOH, one each for processing by the NiftyCase and the Minibrute, and a further two for triggers. This might even be used using special cables as described by Os to generate CV…but I digress.

The key cool thing in this is defined by the MPC: really powerful sequencer and sample handling capabilities. The disadvantages are also due to the MPC: weak synth engine, so no evolving polysynth pads with this.

The surface area of this setup is 814×407.

#2: The New Player and the Updated Synth

This year, two things happened. First, Roland returned to the groovebox market with two new products, one of them (the MC-707) looking like a more playable version of the old MC-505 with a baby embedded version of Ableton Live built in. I liked that. I had played live performances with a combo of the MC-505 and Ableton Live.

Second, Novation provided a software update for their Bass Station 2, a synth which is, at its heart, a pretty standard analogue monosynth. This update brought the synth to another level: different sounds on every key (called “AFX Mode”)!

So why not build something around those two?

System_2_899_446.jpg

Now the MC-707 has a really strong synth engine. Really. Which means that synth voices from the other components aren’t that important. Consequently, the NiftyCase holds no standard synth voices – but adds a few fun processing things, and also a contact microphone.

Note that for wiring, the MC-707 has no USB device port, so the Novation needs two MIDI cables to connect to the MC-707. And the second MIDI Out of the MC-707 controls the NiftyCase’s MIDI In.

The MC-707’s sequencer has an eight-track limit, which means that controlling the Bass Station and two channels on the modular setup reduces its track count to five. Even more if you use the clock pulse trick described above.

There’s only two stereo outs  on the MC-707 as opposed to the MPC’s three. However, there’s a send/return pair, with which I believe you can do fancy stuff as well.

Finally, in the Bass Station vs. Minibrute comparison, the Bass Station is more capable from a feature count POV. Two oscillators, more flexible filter section, distortion, patch storage and let’s not forget the AFX is mode, with which you can turn this into a drum synth if you so desire. The Minibrute wins in this comparison with the higher immediacy – no patch storage, and one knob or slider for each parameter. It’s also slimmer. Which means you could easily do this setup with the Minilogue in place of the Bass Station.

The foontprint on this one is 899×447, larger in both dimensions than configuration #1 due to the MC-707’s greater depth and the Novation’s greater width.

#3: Oldskool and Updated Synth

What if we were combine setup #1 and #2?

System_2a_882_409.jpg

As before, the Bass Station would be connected to the MPCLive via USB (meaning one less cable to worry about, but one more type of cables to consider). In this configuration, I once again opted for the A-111-6, but the modules could be chosen as in the configuration before.

Everything said about the MPCLive and Bass Station in the configurations before holds here as well, so there’s not much to discuss.

The footprint: 882x407mm.

Note that the same thing we did here – swapping MC-707 for MPC Live – could be done in reverse for configuration #1 by using a MC-707. Let’s call it configuration #1a.

#4: Less Synth, more Modular

What if we made the modular setup larger and got rid of the analogue monosynth?System_3_935_419.jpg

The Alesis Q25 as a small, USB-powered keyboard is just that – and meaning that it can be powered from the MPCLive’s USB port means only two power supplies for the entire setup – we’d only need something like this to go to the power feed:

2-1-Steckdose

To make up for the lack of proper synth voices, I considered a larger modular case: the Intellijel Performance Case in its 84HP width gives you two rows, plus one row of 1HU modules.

From the modular side, we have two voice modules (0-Coast and A-111-6), a Hatz hihat, again Mimeophon and Conduit, and for sequencing the Rene Mk.2. Add to that a few audio and control modules, and you get a setup that could also be used all on its own for some fun playing. You could even use the Disting for samples or sample loops and have a Spielsachen setup in its own right with a footprint of only 445x312mm. Let’s call this configuration #4a.

Another variation you could think of would be replacing the MPCLive with the MC-707. I consciously opted for the MPC for this one as with the loads of possibilities in the modular setup, you’ll be far too busy to work with that to be able to edit sounds on the fly on the MC-707…still, that could be called configuration #4b.

Footprint? 935x419mm.

#5: Make it smaller!

We’ve already seen that if we increase modular content, we can remove everything else if we so desire. But what if we want to make the system smaller than before while sticking with the key requirements?

A keyboard is as big as it is – so let’s see what we can do if we abandon this derived requirement.System_4_547_205.jpg

This setup makes use of the Intellijel Palette Case, which comes at an unusual width of 62HP. Sadly, this one has the backside connectors from the Performance Case on its top, and it’s also very shallow – no place for a A-111-6 or even a Synthrotek LPG (and maybe not even for the Distings depicted above – need to check).

Combining that with the MC-707 little brother, the MC-101, we get a sequencer with lots of sample playback, lots of sequencing options (despite the small size) in the modular setup via the Steppy and Mimetic Digitalis modules, and lots of sonic oddness. And flexibility due to two Distings. In this example, audio goes from the MC-101 through the modular thing to a shared output. And the MC-101 can be USB-powered, hence the connector on the modular case. Only one power connector required!

With regard to sonic features and also UX, this is a big move downwards: not a single proper synth voice, no proper display on the sequencer, mini trigger pads and no keyboard. But it’s small and still packs some punch.

The footprint on this one is 547x205mm, even smaller than the example with only one modular case.

Summing it up

First, to remind you: this is not an alternative to the Growing Sideways configuration. It’s a new configuration, and I want to decide if and how I do it.

There are eight configurations, which differ mainly in the choice of groovebox (MPCLive, MC-707, MC-101 or none), keyboard (Minibrute, Bass Station 2, Q25 or none) and modular case (NiftyCase, Performance Case or Palette Case) – this choice would allow for 48 different combinations). There’s no mention of the actual modules in this summary, simply because the detailed choice of modules still needs to be made.

Configuration #5 (and in that context, everything with the rather underpowered MC-101) was done more as a proof of concept, and the same holds for everything using the small palette case.

The same goes for configurations that do not have the trinity of sampling groovebox, keyboard and modular case, and with that, 4a is also out of the equation.

Considering the above, it’s down to six configurations from a potential twelve with said selection criteria. We can trim those potential options further down by considering that everything that combines the Performance Case and a keyboard synth will be way too big – so it’s six out of a potential eight in the end.

In the end, it comes down to the individual devices’ properties. The Minibrute is quite cool, and I already have it. The Bass Station is more powerful, but I don’t have it (which means: cost). Finally the Q25 doesn’t have a synth, but is so cheap the delta cost vanishes in comparison to the rest (and it’s also something that won’t hurt to have around from time to time).

For the grooveboxes, the MC-707 has a far more powerful synth engine, it has a mixer and separate trigger pads and step buttons. The MPCLive has a larger display, way more tracks, more practical connectivity and runs on battery. Price-wise, they’re exactly the same.

As for the cases, the Performance Case is larger and has a lid. But it’s way more expensive than its competition.

A Decision. Kind of.

What started as a big requirements gorefest turned into a really simple decision in the end: I need to decide between the MPCLive and MC-707. Which requires me to play the MC-707 first (haven’t done this yet). Then, get that NiftyBundle (those two modules it contains look pretty nice), dig out the Minibrute and start playing. And go from there.

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