Make Noise 2018: Humble Beginnings

We’re going to start small. Really small. Why? First, start-up costs in eurorack are killer. In order for our modules to mean anything we’ll need a rack, power and cables. Sadly, that adds up to about $200-300 (on the cheap end.) You’ll want a controller too, a sequencer or keyboard. We’re looking at another $100 or so (still on the cheap end.) The sad, financial reality of it all is we’re easily $300-$400 in before we buy our first module. Second, starting small lets us really get to know our equipment. Limitations enable us to focus on what we have, and force us to get in deep.

Now, I’m going to work us through three builds along the way, don’t worry they’re remarkably similar. We’ll be looking to build 60hp, 84hp, and 104hp systems, (depending on your chosen case and power.) The differences (as planned) will be in the 4hp for a power module on the 60hp and 84hp systems, and a modDemix in the 60hp system. For now, just decide how big you want to go, or how much you can spend on your case, because they’re all going to start the same way.

Case and Power Options:*

  1. Tiptop Audio uZeus Power Supply and Adapter, Moog 60hp Eurorack Case $193
  2. Tiptop Audio Happy Ending Kit (84hp) $159
  3. Make Noise Powered Skiff (104hp) $250

I’m currently using the 60hp Moog case and uZeus. This decision was largely because I already had them on hand and it provided the least disruptive start for a new system. I will say that I love the Moog case, it’s a great size for a desktop synth (but it is a pain to run a flying bus-board in it.)

Now, controller options. For an inexpensive starter controller, there are really only two options. The Korg SQ-1 and the Arturia Keystep. I personally favor the SQ-1, it’s slightly cheaper and I like the classic sequencer thing. The truth is they’re both excellent controllers, at great prices, and they both can be hooked up directly to a Eurorack synth, which means we don’t need to buy extra equipment to use them (like Midi to CV converters). Pick whichever floats your boat, I sincerely doubt you’ll be disappointed. I very happily own both. I do find that the SQ-1 has a bit of an advantage here, since it can be run as two channels, and you can do interesting things with the extra CV and gates.

Before we get to the good stuff (it’s ok, we know it’s all about the modules) there’s still one more thing. Cables. If you can’t patch your modules together then there’s really no point. I recommend getting about 12″ patch cables. Two packs of the Moog 12″ cables had me set for a long time when I got into Eurorack. I also suggest getting 2-4 Tiptop Audio stackables. There are other options for passive multiples out there, but they’re my favorite, because even if you aren’t multing a signal with them, they’re still a patch cable. If there’s one thing you need more of than VCA’s it’s patch cables. For starters I suggest two of the red Tiptop cables, and if you’re going for four, get two green ones as well. It’s good to have cables of different sizes. Expect to spend $30 or $50 on cables.

Modules! Finally we’re getting to the good stuff. Before you get too excited, remember, these beginnings are humble (super humble!) We’re going to get started with Rosie, STO, Contour, and a 0hp Vactrol LPG from Mystic Circuits (yes, I know its not Make Noise, we’ll survive though.) Ok, lets talk about our choices.

Rosie ($139) is our output module. It lets us take sound from our synth, and put it to our headphones or speakers, without destroying them or our ears. Rosie is going to be great if you want to travel light with your synth. But if you’re in your home studio and you already have a mixer or interface that you can safely feed a modular level signal into, you can skip Rosie. (For example my Mackie 802 VLZ-4 can take modular level in, or I can use a DI with a bit of attenuation to feed it into my audio interface.) If you don’t need Rosie, then skip it for now and bank the cash.

STO ($200) is our oscillator, it’s going to be our primary sound source. STO is a tiny 8hp additive oscillator. It puts out a nice sine-wave that can make some nice clean tones and deep bass. The Shape output is where we get our nice additive fun going on. It gives us control by knob or CV to wave-shape a sinewave. It can make some raging sounds, and pretty cool effects. The sub-oscillator is a beefy square(ish) shape that can do some really cool backup for the main oscillators, and even has it’s own built-in gate. With the sine waves, you can do some really mellow, glassy sounds. Or, get crazy, throw some sync or FM at this thing and it can absolutely tear your face off, like a sonic grizzly bear on PCP.

ContourĀ ($120) brings the modulation. Not only do I like that it’s dirt cheap (it is, and I love that about it), but its an excellent modulation source. It’s an incredibly versatile envelope, offering ADSR, ASR and AD envelopes, with variable curve from linear to exponential. It can do smooth or snappy. And you can use it as an LFO, up into audio rates, just plug the EOC output into the Gate input and which it go. The controls are very intuitive and playable. The EON and EOC outputs are quite handy for triggering events, clocking or quick and dirty square-wave. and the mirrored output offers some really cool and unusual modulation possibilities.

And finally
0hp Vactrol LPG ($33) this minuscule, passive module lets us turn the incessant stream of sound coming from the oscillator into individual sounds, like plucks or strikes. It gives us control over the amplitude of our volume. It should be noted that an LPG is a combination of a VCA and LPF, as it opens it not only increases amplitude (volume) but it lets through increasingly higher frequencies. Similarly as it shuts, volume decreases as do the frequencies it lets pass. Note, as a vactrol unit it doesn’t work great with ADSR envelopes, but it can do fine things with ASR and AD envelopes, it can even give some nice shape to simple gates. It also has a mix input, which is a pretty sweet feature, I think you’ll gain respect for pretty quickly. This odd little module is a great choice. It’s super cheap, which makes getting started much easier on the bank account. And while it’s versatile, it’s super simple, which will free you up to get very familiar with STO and Contour.

So, our startup cost is about $800 – $900. Yeah, no joke, it’s expensive getting into modular. But from this point forward, we’ll be able to focus our funds on the fun stuff, expanding our collection of modules. Our start is small but I suggest spending a week or two getting familiar with the basics. Learn to push every last inch of sound out of your three modules and controller. I spent about a week an a half using nothing but the STO, Contour, 0hp LPG and SQ-1 and had a blast [article here]. Beware, after about two weeks, you should have a solid grasp and be ready and eager for more. So, be prepared to get your next module around then.

* Note, I’m focusing on building a nice little synth that will function as it’s own system. But, if you’re just getting started, and plan on going big once this project is done, remember you’ll be out of space, and you’ll have to invest in a new case and power supply. If you have the money and plan to get your start here before going bigger, you might want to consider the Tiptop Audio Mantis case as a pretty inexpensive start to a bigger system. That way once we’ve filled our 104hp you have a whole second row waiting for you.

Honorable Mentions
Mystic Circuits 0hp LPG
Make Noise STO
Make Noise Contour
Korg SQ-1
Arturia Keystep

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