Late at night, patching cables in Make Noise's brilliantly-named "Maths" module. Photo (CC-BY) x2mirko - another German artist using American modules in the homeland of Eurorack.

Late at night, patching cables in Make Noise’s brilliantly-named “Maths” module. Photo (CC-BY) x2mirko – another German artist using American modules in the homeland of Eurorack.

The lust for new sounds can take many forms. It leads some to reduce, forcing themselves to stick to minimal choices to channel their creativity. It leads some to reuse and recycle, repurposing old gear. But it leads some into a quest for arcane racks of gear, spaghetti tangles of wires and flashing screens alike, a buzzing laboratory of choices and possibilities.

For this chapter in the story, we take a peek at the modular obsessed and toy-packed studios, with Richard Devine, Make Noise, and friends.

The southeastern USA is a pretty summery place now, the day before the Fourth of July holiday. A damp, oppressively-heavy heat hangs long after the sun goes down, accompanied by insects of the B-movie horror variety, hungry for human flesh. Fortunately, this part of the world also has basements and extra rooms and cars – perfect for accumulating treasure troves of gear in your music cave. And just as Moog Music has settled into Asheville, North Carolina, so, too, has boutique modular builder Make Noise, continuing as much the tradition of pioneer Don Buchla as Dr. Robert Moog. There, the intrepid Americans have embraced the Eurorack format born with Germany’s Doepfer, and extended the idea, mixing digital and analog techniques to produce a vast variety of experimental new creations. It’s the equivalent of the American microbrewing movement – and might just as easily knock you under the table.

None of this matters much if you can’t make some interesting noises, though. Before we get to the clan of gear, then, here’s the latest video from southern gentleman sound designer Mr. Richard Devine.

Mutable Instruments, Parisian Olivier Gillet’s firm, may be best known for his Shruthi synth. But here, the Braids Macro oscillator makes beautiful, delicate sounds that mimic plucked strings.

And out of that strange spaghetti comes something really lovely. Listen:

First patch with the Mutable Instruments Braids and Grids Modules (Plucked Synthesis) from Richard Devine on Vimeo.

Richard explains:

First patch experiment using the Mutable Instruments Braids Macro oscillator running in “PLUK” mode. Emulating the sound of raw plucked strings that change with the timbre control via damping, and the color knob changing the plucking position. MakeNoise Rene sending out CV notes to the 1-v/oct input and Gate triggers to the Braids trigger input. The output is then running into the Phonogene for light processing. Liquid drum percussion sequencing by three gate trigger outputs from the Grids module. Trigger one going into the Mungo g0. Trigger two going to the DPO for the lower end kick drum emulation. Final output running lightly through a eventide space pedal.

This modular business can get very wild, too, if you prefer, in Richard’s hands.

So, what’s going on here?

“Something someone will want to use in twenty years…”

Tony Rolando, founder of Make Noise, tours his Asheville workshop and talks about what drives him – how he designs these instruments, and what he believes in. This isn’t a question of analog versus digital, or new versus old. It’s often both: it combines vintage interfaces and circuitry with the latest in bleeding-edge sound. It’d be as though Chevrolet made an aluminum-composite electric car you could hitch to a horse. But out of those blends of ideas, the idea is to make something lasting, something connected with long-term music making rather than just the latest fashion.

It’s also a rather beautiful video (via Sonic State:

The Techniques of Musique Concrete, in a Modular

A nice window into the scene comes to us from friend of the site Chris Stack and his experimentalsynth site. Here, we get a full half hour of conversation inside the Make Noise factory in Asheville. Tony Rolando, Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe (the terrific artist Lichens), and Richard Devine share what they’re working on.

Video quality isn’t great, but it’s packed with information, and I think worth watching even to understand this approach for those of us working in computers, too:

Where does he get those wonderful toys?

Sound designer Richard Devine, known both for experimental music opuses and an insanely-prolific sound design career, has parlayed all those sound design gigs into a drool-worthy gear collection. Richard freely admits he’ll often take a sound design gig just to get in on the latest stuff, and if anyone is on top of everything that’s happening, he is.

He recently took the UK’s Future Music Magazine on a tour of his studio, outside Atlanta. Just as the Nordic and Icelandic artists can hole up for the winter, it looks like a great way to soak up air conditioning in Georgia summers.

Future says:

If his music isn’t in your collection, there’s a good chance his sounds are in that synth you own, a videogame you just played or the TV ad you just watched. Watch and let Richard take you on a tour of his North Carolina studio

It’s also worth following Richard for his haiku-like Vine modular creations – little etudes in noise film.

now on Instagram, of course, via its new video feature.

To me, this stuff can be inspiring even if you’re sitting with a cassette Walkman and a used KAOSS Pad. (Hmmm… that’d make a nice rig, actually.)

Happy sound exploring – and, America, happy Independence Day.

  • Marco Raaphorst

    I had a brief scan and listen. Will zen-mode it later. But one of the things I wanted to say is that I find it very interesting to look at this type of music making of a less ego kind of thing. I’m also a guitarplayer which is something I play. And I do that for over 30 years. Not as an experiment, but the become a better player. Although that has so much to do with music, it’s also an ego thing. There are many nice players.

    Somehow electronic music, let the machine do the work, has a zen like feel to it. Although I can’t really explain it well enough. Probably because of my Double Dutch. And also because it’s a new idea which came to mind recently …

    • Ross Healy

      Modular synthing is like Chess, you make a move and the modules make their move etc

  • digi

    I’ve been thinking about “going modular” for quite some time, and finally put in my order for some modules this week. What’s been so off-putting has been the pretty terrible quality of much of the modular music I have heard/seen in various videos etc.

    My main problem is that a lot of people seem to want to put together the *entire* track using their modular system, which, for many people, seem to lead to a very homogenous, modular sound: samey oscillator sounds, arpeggiated sequencing, same old drum sounds etc.

    But then you have people like Richard Devine and Keith Fullerton Whitman, who certainly shows that it’s possible to do so many *different* things (although Mr. Devine do tend to sound a lot like Mr. Devine, if you know what I mean 😉 .

    So I am trying to put together a sample based setup, with less focus on oscillators, and more on sample manipulation (Phonogene, Echophon, Tyme Sefari Mark II, Mungo g0 etc.) and modulation. I am also getting kind of tired of clicking around with the mouse on a screen, so hopefully the modular approach can liberate certain parts of music making (and my, at times, pretty painful shoulder).

    Afraid I will get hooked, because, da*n, some of this stuff is expensive! You have to pay premium dolla for modules that could be together in Max or Reaktor without TOO much trouble. But, again, combining stuff using modulars seems so much more tempting right now than combining stuff in Max.

    We shall see. End of rant.

  • Chris Stack

    Thanks Peter. This (the talk at Make Noise) was one of those somewhat unexpected “quick-and-dirty” videos that reinforce the idea that you should always be ready to record. Cool stuff is always happening somewhere.

  • James Husted

    Modular Synthesis is not for everyone for sure. There are plenty of barriers to entry. Cost is the main one. If you do traditional music the cost of one “voice” is pretty high (easily over a grand for anything other than very basic) and to do polyphony is really expensive compared to buying a semi-modular (a one piece unit with some patching abilities). Basically you will have to do a Wendy Carlos Switched on Bach approach to traditional music – MANY monophonic passes to build up chords etc. If you are into sound design or more experimental music, or just wish to inject some “sci-fi” into your tracks, then a modular is great. I have a semi-large system (little over 100 modules) and it has taken a couple of years to get there. I manufacture controller modules ( so my “excuse” is that I need them to demo my gear but I have to admit that there is a LOT of GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) with modular – A LOT. When I started building my system a couple of years ago there were only a dozen or so makers out there in my chosen format (Eurorack) – now there are easily over 100. So many modules and directions to head to. It is a VERY personal musical experience – you build a custom machine with the modules you want and with it create the instruments you want with it. It is way more cheaper to use Reactor, or Reason, or MAX/MSP than getting into modular but with modular you have many more “happy accidents” and your chops increase because you can’t save any patches (cellphone pictures come in handy) and have to start from scratch almost every time – you learn things fast.

    • Peter Kirn

      I’m not sure Reaktor / Max / Pd etc. are without happy accidents, too – I’ve found loads – just perhaps different happy accidents.

      I think there is a lot of commonality in approach to sound and musical persona shared between these, actually. Of course, it’s great to have knobs and cables rather than a screen.

  • max

    modular – the other kind of harley davidson for man over 40, lol