Racks and knob-encrusted modules and wires tangling together to make sound – this is a perfectly lovely thing. But the computer sitting in front of you, the one you probably turn to when it comes time to record and produce, is also capable of vast sonic powers. Why force a choice between the two, when that machine can let you explore the frontiers of sound, too?

The recent announcement of OSCiLLOT brought open-ended patching to Ableton Live users. But it’s only getting started. Today, we get to see it evolve, learn to use it to make the sounds we imagine, find out about the development process, and better understand why it matters.

And now is the perfect time, because OSCiLLOT’s creators have been busy beefing up the system they just unveiled. For starters, there’s a new tutorial video to teach you how to use it (top). And, you get two new modules: a comb filter, plus a terrific feedback module that lets you route sound back into your modular rig. (I’m especially pleased about that, as I was getting muddled coming from Pure Data/Pd, in which feedback loop routing works differently. Well, and because generally feedback is great fun.)

OSCiLLOT versus Max 7. First off, let’s clear up some confusion. Cycling ’74′s Max/MSP recently brought its own modular environment to the table, by bundling Max 7 with stretta’s modular patch library BEAP – the feature I called one of the best reasons to upgrade to Max 7. And so some readers assumed that this means OSCiLLOT is redundant. It’s not. If you’re using Max directly for patching, BEAP is still a great environment – one that can help you learn modular synthesis techniques, make some great sonic creations, and connect to outboard gear.

But OSCiLLOT isn’t BEAP. BEAP is a great learning tool, but it’s not so great when it comes to using Max inside Ableton Live. BEAP is monophonic, for one thing; OSCiLLOT gives you polyphony, which makes more sense on a computer. And – here’s the deal-killer – you can’t patch BEAP live when you’re working with Ableton Live. (You have to enter edit mode – and at that point, you’ve lost a true modular feel.)

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Hypnotic repetitive gestures are perhaps the signature of our generation in music, the legacy of Reich and Glass and Monk and Riley and Young … and tape decks and computers and drum machines. But then, repetition is the very stuff of our bodies, of heartbeats and footsteps and brain waves. Mastering repetition is essential, then, to any compositional practice. It should be, literally, as natural as breathing in and breathing out. And it should have the potential to take on its own voice.

That’s the sense I get of this work. Listening to Hanno Leichtmann’s music, you may drift off into another world. It is work of collage, but in a way that imagines a new landscape. In ‘Minimal Studies,’ released on Moscow’s mikroton Records in 2013 and in live form this week, that effect is especially in evidence.

Hanno is no stranger to club music as well as experimental; he’s a DJ, often favoring the dubby, as well as curator. And his aesthetic is partly visual, staging festivals that reinterpret typography and letraset in music and creating his own visual objects, including optical picture disk releases. In Minimal Studies, he finds a way to take the gesture of a loop and hone in on it in some unique and transcendent way. The reference to minimalism is clear, but the color, the effect are Hanno’s.

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Having something pretty won’t necessarily make you make better music. But from the carved face on a viola da gamba to the shine of brass on a trumpet, musicians have long imbued the objects that make music with visual features reflecting the unseen beauty of the sounds they emit.

And this suitcase for sound, the work of Swedish design Frédéric Sebton, is beautiful both aesthetically and in its practicality.

This one-off creation houses the “Verbos Composition Suitcase” – a very practical and reasonably affordable starter kit of Verbos modules, the title a cheeky reference to the (unrelated) VCS modular. Inside are the modules made by Mark Verbos, himself a creator with an impeccable sense of taste. I admire Mark, because his modules aren’t just fetish objects: Mark is an oustanding musician, and a terrific engineer, someone whose dedication can inspire people whether their craft is in circuits or not.

Apart from looking good, the VCS configuration eschews a show-off, how-many-toys-can-I-collect modular that might never get out of your living room, in factor of a design you might actually carry to a gig. And that means if you happen to get to your gig on, say, swift and environmentally-friendly Swedish public transit rather than in a truck.

And… oh, jeez. I really should apologize at this point. I’m not trying to separate you from your money, least of all to try to make you all go out and get modulars. But … well, please, let’s see more designs like this.

While it’s just a one-off, Sebton will soon offer custom cases. There’s a waiting list you can get on – yes, that includes you, Trent Reznor and Björk and Herbie Hancock, you lucky superstars, you.

As Martin Wheeler notes in comments, Mark’s modules are affordable – especially if you confine yourself to a reasonable suitcase like this. A couple grand will easily get you started, which is less than the price of a lot of standalone hardware synths and workstations. So, I jest. However… I also know sometimes celebrities do get on those waiting lists.

On the Sebton site (and Frédéric’s Instagram feed) you can discover other beautiful things. Thanks, Frédéric! We can keep stereotyping Scandinavia as a wonderland of aesthetic treasures so long as you … uh, keep making them.

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Making Music With Poppy from Pierre Rouanet on Vimeo.

It can “learn” to tap its toe and bob its head. And then it can make sounds as you move its arms. It’s a robotic interface for music – a bit like playing with a very smart toy doll.

To show off its interactive/interfacing abilities, the team behind Poppy used music.

Poppy is a robot that can be produced with a 3D printer. All the hardware and software are fully open source. The idea – fused with cash from the EU’s European Research Council for funding science and creativity – is to help teach, as well as to empower engineers, scientists, and researchers. Apart from getting kids excited by being really cool, robotics are an excellent way to explore ideas in physical space, honing skills around logic as well as programming.

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Forget the notion that new technologies replace old, that design is a steady progression from past to future. Think, instead, of music – variations on a theme, modernity made from the spare parts of the past.

Latvia may be eager to shed its Soviet past, and with good reason. But part of the legacy left behind is a history and expertise in engineering. Rīga, the Latvian capital in this Baltic country, was home to the mighty RMIF synth company and Blue Microphones, among others. The economic strain of the Soviet union sometimes required these makers to be even more ingenious in finding electronics solutions; the respect they’ve earned in the West isn’t mere exoticism – it’s real electronics cred, and well earned.

Erica Synths is a boutique maker built at the juncture between Latvia’s maker past and its present and future. Some parts, and even engineering, come from RMIF veterans. You’ll find vintage tubes and Polivoks op-amps (the circular objects in one of my photos here). And then you’ll also find new suppliers and hints of the future – yes, MIDI, and yes, you’ll spot a display prototype. (I can’t share what that’s about, but maybe you can guess.)

What might surprise you is that the so-called “vintage” parts are being made anew. Look at those beautiful glass tubes, and you’ll see Made in China, or – check my photo – Made in the USA. (As noted in comments, that indication may mean this is a vintage tube. China, at least, is making new ones, actively in production and rolling off the assembly line.) Other companies continue to make new former-Soviet Polivoks components. And apparently demand for these components stays high. It’s been highly-publicized that film stock – Kodachrome, Polaroid – has gone out of production. But what has failed to make news is the fact that a lot of these other components live on.

The upshot of all of this is you get to enjoy new music gear that blends past and future into a heady brew of something you can use right now. The modular format itself is a good example: Erica has gotten into the Eurorack business, itself fueled by demand from people born in the age of digital and computers who want futuristic sounds – in a vintage modular format. Continue reading »


Once upon a time, musicians made music from the sound content pouring invisibly, inaudibly from the air. The likes of John Cage and Kalrheinz Stockhausen turned the radio into stochastic source and instrument, a means of making music in the now.

And now, you can, too, in the latest Eurorack module.

Whether you want a modular or not, this is one module you definitely don’t need. You don’t need to act out Cage-ian fantasies and turn your local hit FM station greatest tracks of the 80s and 90s into an experimental noise performance. Nor do you really need to understand the workings of Eurorack by building your own DIY module. But you can.

And the man who made the DIY project is none other than Tom Whitwell, the one-time music tech blogger who used to trade shots with CDM at Music thing, but has now found a much more enjoyable path making new Eurorack modules (among other worthwhile activities).

Music Thing Modular Radio Music Prototype from Tom Whitwell on Vimeo.

The beginnings of this project can be found in a guest piece Tom wrote for CDM in the heady days of 2012. There, he was already on to the notion of building a radio sequencer – and, in the process, teaching you how to make your own modules.

Now, the piece is fully fleshed out and documented. There are copious instructions, so that this might even be your first electronics piece. You can delve into the history of the music that inspired it, then grab a soldering iron and start making your own history. Continue reading »

Not just a little small and a little inexpensive. A lot little.

Malaventura, aka Fernando Garcia Tamajon, sends this wonderful “cheesy pocket techno jam” (spotted via Instagram).

The ingredients:

a PO-14 from teenage engineering, a monotron Delay from Korg and a talking translator by an unknown brand bought in a fleamarketn

Works for me. There’s something about things being small, self-contained, simple … that can be inspiring. For all those years of people derisively calling things “toys,” sometimes toys are exactly what we need. I love that mystery gear, too.