Tech Thoughts: Hybrid Modular Setups

Some time ago, I rambled on how I could do a small Spielsachen setup. The idea was to have a performance-oriented hardware setup which contained some modular stuff for the things where it’s good for, and other things for the things other things are better for.

Taking the Christmas season as an excuse, I got a few things. Roland MC-707 (which I already reviewed), Novation Bass Station II, Folktek Mescaline, a NiftyBundle and a bunch of modules. Doepfer A-111-6 synth voice and A-138s stereo mixer, 2hp MMF filter, Qu-Bit Bloom sequencer and Noise Engineering Clep Diaz CV generator. So did it work?

General

I’ve been playing a few setups where I combined these new additions with things I already had. Those things included two SQ-1, a Volca Drum, an Arturia Minibrute, a few modules I put into the NiftyCase (Pico BBD, Pico CV Mixer, 2hp ADSR, VCA and VCO, Mikrofonie, Disting), a KP3 Kaoss Pad and a Zoom G3 effects thingie. And cables.

Let’s have a look at some of the setups, shall we?

Kabigon (MC-707, Bass Station II)

A kind of lo-fi hiphop. I played the lead part on the BS2 out of tune (using the pitch wheel) to fit in with the general vibe. To make it more authentic, I recycled the Type IV tape noise I had recorded and put it under everything.

Scream-Off (Bass Station II, Minibrute, Volca Drums, 2xSQ1)

Acid for the new decade! Two analogue monosynths, an analogue drum machine, and a total of three 16-step sequencers made for a fun experience. The fact that all sequencers were by Korg really helped for a kind of universal playability.

Bloom (Niftycase, Mescaline)

This was more an experiment to get the hang of both Mescaline and Bloom (and also finally a performance that included the NiftyCase and the Mescaline), rather than some chill noodling. The Bloom was by far the most complex sequencer in this setup – and learning how it can become part of the “Polyphonic Posse” helped pave the way for…

Bach 2020 (MC-707, BS2, Niftycase, KP3, G3)

I consider this a work in progress. Take tons of themes and motifs by Bach and have them play against each other. Somehow, it always works. Well, it’s Bach.

The MC-707 makes a return, and firmly takes the role of setup centre, not only because all of the audio runs through it. It doesn’t control external sequences though, only sends out clock, to about everything.

Alexander’s Subbass Theorem (MC-707, BS2, Niftycase, Mescaline, G3)

Finally, all of the new gear together in one performance! It still doesn’t include all of the features of the MC-707, but this time, I did take sounds from a drum groove (Mescaline) and sample it into the MC-707 (not during the performance, though – the MC-707 is bad at this).

Key Takeaways

Let’s start with some obvious kinda-statistics: of the newly-obtained major components, out of the five performances I used the BS2 in four, the MC-707 in three, and the NiftyCase in three as well (for a module breakdown, I used the A-111-6 in three, the Cellz/Chipz combo in two, same as for the Bloom and Clep Diaz), and finally the Mescaline in two.

Going just by the numbers, it would mean that the BS2 is the best (which may actually be the case) and the Mescaline the worst (I’m not so sure about this, though, and it would also share that place with the Bloom and Clep Diaz).

2020 is about Interoperability and Decentralization

One of the key aspects in design of modern music gear is interoperability, or more generally, the ability to do any task on any device. We’ve come a long way here, not least due to the invention of MIDI (hey, 2.0 is now officially a thing!), but also due to how gearmakers design their things because they’re expected to. I can use a SQ-1 step sequencer, control a BS2 via MIDI, another SQ-1 to sequence a Minibrute via CV/gate, and sync them to a Volca via a sync connector. I can run sequencers on different devices and sync them via MIDI, MIDI-over-USB and eurorack connections at the same time. Works everytime. And that is just: great!

While the interoperatbility (both with modular and MIDIfied systems) has at times led to a centralization, today it goes hand in hand with decentralization. Want an example? The setups discussed above had a total of two to five sequencers, and most of the time, more than one sequencer was active. So what of it? It means that on one side, you need to be aware of the feature set and limitations of each individual device. On the other hand, you can use the device that best fits the task at hand for any given task.

You can pack a lot of punch into a portable setup

PICT_20200125_153012.jpg
Looks cool, stupid form factor: Folktek Mescaline

Originally, this here was about a setup that you could potentially fit into carry-on luggage, and if we count out the Mescaline with its stupid form factor¹ for the moment, this would be possible for pretty much all of the setups shown here.

And there really is a lot of punch and a huge feature set. Take the Bach2020 setup for example: a groovebox with up to 128 voices, eight tracks, powerful sequencer, decent effects, audio in, sampling capabilities, effects loop, a powerful three-osc monosynth² with two filter types, arpeggiator, sequencer and patch storage, microtuning, the fancy AFX mode and a bunch of other goodies, an interactive FX/sampler box with X/Y-pad, an effects box that does up to 5 (or was it 6) nice effects at once, two really unique sequencers, another analogue synth voice, two oscillators,… You not only can do a lot with that, but you can also play it nicely in a performance situation.

Performance setups are also nice for writing

All of the stuff that was done in the videos above was not only performed on, but also written using the shown setups (that, and a manuscript book and pen at times). No, you don’t need a computer for that. Going dawless (aka the hipster trend) is not just for hipsters, or a pointless exercise, or only for very specific styles of music, but works perfectly fine.

PICT_20200125_152706.jpg
You might still want to bring pen and paper

I had a lot of fun!

’nuff said.

Summary

There really is none. I had a lot of fun doing those performances, so there might just be more of those in the near future (meaning: less of the big Spielsachen rig, and less time for doing the geometrical integration for real).

My setup of choice from the components shown? If I had to do a performance and leave in 30 minutes, I’d most probably pick the MC-707, Niftycase with the modules shown, and then add either BS2 or Minibrute (so I have a proper keyboard) and grab KP3 and/or G3 (or a Line6 M9 instead) as I see fit.


1: The Mescaline is three Eurorack modules mounted onto a nice-to-look-at frame. Each of the modules is 44TE in width – meaning you just can’t mount two into a standard 84TE case (which would also just fit carry-on luggage), or fit the entire system into a two-row 84TE case. Bummer.

2: Considering the Bass Station 2’s sub oscillator can be freely tuned in the new software, I’m counting it as a third oscillator here.

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