Small Systems: Focused

So, small systems are limited and we’ve come to terms with that. We’re ready to face the world of limitations head on. But in euro-land we’re drowning in modules. So how do we decide what will comprise our little island of synthesis?

I propose two possible pathways:

  1. The basics. Many of the great little semi-modular synths out there are tons of fun, but essentially they are very basic systems. If you’re just beginning your journey into synthesis, but want to dive straight into eurorack, the basics of subtractive synthesis are a great place to start. The tried and true VCO, Filter, LFO, ADSR, VCA is a great and fun way to begin. On top of that, you’ll learn a LOT!
  2. A focused rack. A rack designed with a singularity of purpose. A small rack needn’t be basic. It can explore wild new territories. It can become a wonderful portable box of sonic possibilities and musical expression. We are going to spend the rest of our time talking about this kind of system. A small, focused system.

My eurorack journey began building the first kind of system, basic. And don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a years worth of fun building and experimenting, and swapping out bits… all in this wonderful, basic sort of system. But my real light-bulb moment was when I got Elements.

You see, I am sort of stuck in a small rack. Going bigger involves money and decisions I’m not ready for at the moment. So anyhow, here comes Elements, 34 of my 84hp gone! forty  percent of the rack for one module. And while this could have been terrible, it’s perhaps the greatest thing to happen in my small rack. Why? Because, accidentally, I’d landed upon something beautiful, wonderful, and powerful. Focus. With so much of my space devoured by the beast of modal synthesis, the rest of my rack had to become a sort of “life support system” for Elements.

Prior to Elements the system had grown from the basics into a sort of hodgepodge of ideas and hopes of someday just throwing it all in a bigger case. And ultimately this was a bit ungainly and disappointing to use.

But now, with Elements so clearly at the heart of it all, the rest of the rack slowly began to design itself. Elements loves LFO’s. Tide’s is one of my very favorites and diverse and powerful beyond that… in it goes! Elements has some real sweet-spots, the ability to move between them would be tremendous, Frames takes it’s place. I’ve always loved Branches and so it went in experimentally. And I discovered that latching mode, coupled with the ten attenuverters allows me to create a sort of random “switching” in various parameters of the sound. It’s become a fixture. I’m still trying to feel out if Streams is the right way to spend 12hp. But if not, I have a clear direction to go for it’s replacement. Whatever comes into the rack must support Elements.

Ok, cool story bro. But how does this help me? Here’s how, find the focus of your system, a module or an idea, and begin to build the rest of your system around that. I wonder if this is the basis from which the System Cartesian is derived. Letting that massive Rene sequencer express itself in west-coast style. Maybe you’re all about the sequence but Rene isn’t your style. Perhaps the Z8000 supported by dividers, switches and quantizers is how you want to express yourself. Or maybe the ever so sweet Metropolis. Maybe you’re hot for that Morphagene? Get one and make a synth whose whole world revolves around that sucker.  Find a module that just gives you “the fizz” and build it a miniature paradise.

Don’t worry about getting weird out here in this territory. We’re not building conventional synths. We’re building a specialty piece, through which we indulge in a sonic fantasy. Our goal isn’t a system which everyone “gets” our goal is a system in which our module of choice or idea thrives. Systems build around Akemie’s Castle, or Morphagene, or Rings, or the Harmonic Oscillator might all be wildly different from one another. How those systems are shaped will depend upon the module or idea at the center of it all, and upon the system designers vision for that synth.

So you’ve embraced the limits of your small system? Now find it a purpose. Give it focus. And create something amazing! In our next article, we’ll be talking about a few overarching rules which will help us further refine our selection of supporting modules.


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Honorable Mentions:
Akemie’s Castle
Harmonic Oscillator