Getting started with Eurorack – part 1

Posted on Mar 22, 2016 by rutgervlek

I regularly hear from people who love synths and are looking for ways to spark their creativity and explore new sounds, but are unsure if a Eurorack synthesizer is the way to go. The pictures of huge modular systems on the internet seem just as impressive as they are overwhelming (and expensive!), and typical Eurorack video demos are nearly always of the “blip-blop-bloink”-kind. So is Eurorack really the way forward for electronic musicians? Here’s an overview of the basics of Eurorack, and the reasons for people to (not) get involved with modulars. I hope it helps you to decide if you’d benefit from a Eurorack synth or not.

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First of all, it’s a important to realize that Eurorack is not a product, but a format. Most people are used to buying a so called fixed-architecture synthesizer, with certain specifications, keys, filters, sounds, samples, memory, etc., in a store. A Eurorack synthesizer is much less predetermined, because it is modular. Functions that you’d normally buy connected together in one instrument are now separately offered in “modules”, so you get a separate filter, a separate oscillator, etc. Also in contrast to the fixed-architecture synthesizer, a Eurorack modular leaves interconnections between the synthesizer functions open to the user: you! With patch cables you can wire several modules together to recreate the sound of let’s say a MiniMoog synthesizer, but you’re also free to connect the same modules in a completely different fashion to create a new synthesizer that did not yet exist. For starters, this lets you combine recreations of you favorite oscillators (e.g. from a Yamaha CS-80) with the filters of another favorite (e.g. a Prophet 5). But Eurorack can do so much more. Not only is the audio path modular, the control path (which controls specific functions of a module with Control Voltages: CVs) is modular as well. This means you can create extremely complex sounds with lots of movement, interactive elements and rich effects. You could play these sounds live from a keyboard, or control them from you computer DAW (Cubase, Logic, Live), but Eurorack also allows for more experimental control via sensors (pedals, ribbons, body sensors, pads) or via built-in sequencers.

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You’re now probably beginning to grasp how this concept of a modular synthesizer opens up a vast amount of creative possibilities. For this modularity to work well, you need a clear set of specifications on how all these synthesizer functions in different modules talk to each-other. And that’s what Eurorack is all about: it’s simply a set of conventions about dimensions, signal levels, and power requirements that guarantee that all these modules work together as one big, versatile instrument.

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I wouldn’t be surprised if also you start feeling overwhelmed by now. That’s why I’ll take you step by step through it. First, let’s have a look at a list of pro’s and con’s of Eurorack; why people get started with it (or not). If you still feel curious after that, read on to the second part where I explain how to start a very simple Eurorack system that recreates the architecture of a MiniMoog, and how a modular let’s you go beyond MiniMoog territory with the same set of modules.

Pro’s

  • Unique: You can mix, match, customize, personalize, expand, shrink and evolve with a Eurorack systems in ways that no other synthesizer allows you to. Your choices make your instrument unique in sound and appearance.
  • Creative: Where fixed-architecture synthesizers are often compromised to the wishes of the largest market share, Eurorack allows for highly creative and innovative designs to become available, giving you a more distinct sound and features not found elsewhere. Bringing such modules together, from different creative designers around the world, makes a Eurorack synth more than the sum of its parts.
  • Quality: Potentially very high sound quality, on par with the best instruments you can find in store.
  • Scalable: Very compact if you need it! Vast, room-filling systems if you can afford it.
  • Community spirit! Eurorack has brought many synth lovers around the globe together through meetings, workshops, performances and internet fora. There’s a lot of active sharing of idea’s, open-source projects, and guidance for do-it-yourself modules. (e.g. have a look here: https://muffwiggler.com/forum/)
  • Educational! Eurorack modulars really encourage you to learn about sound, physics and electronics, probably to the benefit of your musical efforts. Also, there are a lot of DIY (do-it-yourself) kits available, allowing you to learn more about electronics as well as making Eurorack a bit cheaper.
  • It’s not only for keyboardists! You can use a modular to process sounds from other instruments as well: guitars, vocals, drums, electric violin, samples/loops, or whole mixes. Have a look at this solution for guitar players: http://pittsburghmodular.com/patch-box/.
  • Highly addictive!

Con’s

  • Cost. Eurorack is not cheap. There are several reasons for this. First, Eurorack modules typically come with a lot connection sockets, switches and knobs on the front panel. Lovely in terms of work-flow, but all this hardware is expensive. Second, Eurorack is not a mass market, so neither you nor manufacturers benefit from economy of scale (e.g. think cell-phones, where large scale production makes them really cheap). Add to that the time investment required from an engineer to come up with truly innovative designs and you get a feel for why Eurorack is not cheap.
  • No patch memory! Just like in the analog days, it is not possible to recall a specific sound made on a Eurorack synth with the push of a button. There are partial solutions though, in the form of recallable switching systems, or presets within modules. Also, you can rest assured that finding a solution to this is one of the holy grails of Eurorack.
  • Often monophonic. Playing several notes at a time (polyphony) requires each note to have a completely independent set of modules that are adjusted identically at the same time. This is hard to achieve in any modular system. There are partial solutions though, and more coming. Some MIDI-to-CV converters allow for polyphony, as well as a few oscillators. That way you can create paraphonic (independent oscillators, the rest shared) or polyphonic (fully independent) sounds. Another nice trick is to sample a great monophonic Eurorack sound, and then play it back polyphonically through the sampler.
  • Complexity: The complexity and technical knowledge needed for Eurorack may stand in the way of instant gratification. It takes some time and effort to learn to work with your instrument.
  • Highly addictive!

This seems like a enough information for one post. If you’re still with me, I hope you check out part two. There I’ll make things more concrete, explain what you need to know about cases, power supplies and cables, and I’ll provide an example of a Eurorack system based on the architecture of the MiniMoog.