The workshop

Posts from the workshop

The Commodore, Moog, MidiBox project

Posted on Aug 08, 2016 by rutgervlek

After my first DIY synth endevaours, I felt encouraged by the result and my mind was full of new ideas for future instruments. After the lovely vintage, but monophonic sound of the Ocean, I felt I wanted to do something very different. Something a bit grittier, polyphonic and with a hybrid (analog+digital) architecture.8

At the same time I discovered the amazing efforts of Thorsten Klose, in setting up the MidiBox community and sharing a wealth of circuit ideas, code and knowledge. One of the projects on his website was (re)using an old sound IC from the ancient Commodore C-64 computer. Using this sound engine, he built a new synth around it with the help of a micro controller. Many people followed building a monophonic (single SID) version of this, and it sounded like fun and very useful for computer-game style effects and simple melodies. Musically, I wasn’t yet convinced this would be my new instrument, until I heard Thorsten’s demo of an experimental polyphonic mode using a few SIDs in parallel. Now it began to sound like something I would use, especially given the amazingly deep synth engine he had built around it. Shortly after, I heard another demo. This time it was a single SID chip playing through a Moog ladder filter. While the SID’s internal filters do work, they have a rather harsh sound. I was surprised how the sound of the SID changed into gritty, yet warm when played through a Moog filter.

That’s when I decided to build one myself. A 8-voice polyphonic SID synthesizer, based on the MBSID V2 platform, with the addition of 8 parallel Moog ladder filters. As my room was getting rather full of synthesizers, I decided to make it a rack mounted version.

At that time, the only way to achieve enough processing power for the entire MBSID V2 engine to run polyphonically, was to use several micro controllers. About two SIDs could be controlled from a single micro controller, and that’s when I decided to build a stereo architecture. Basically this made the synthesizer either 8-voice polyphonic, but mono (single audio output), or 4-voice polyphonic in full stereo. I was having high hopes for this last mode, as I was guessing that small differences in the analog circuitry would provide a nice feel of “width” in stereo. It turned out even better than I expected (check out those full-stereo string sounds in the demo)!

While 8-voice polyphony was possible with this multi-core design, it was far from practical, and the sheer complexity of the entire project has caused the occasional headache. In the end, it worked out though!  With the help of Thorsten Klose, I ironed out some minor bugs and did a few small modifications to the firmware to make it run on my specific hardware setup, and the whole thing came to life.

However, within a week of playing with the new instrument, it became clear that the synth engine was so deep, and the front-panel so minimal, I could never grab the full potential of the synth when programming it.

It turned out that I wasn’t the only one being overwhelmed by the deep synthesis engine of the MidiBox line. I got in touch with a few others, and had a look at an early attempt to a software MIDI controller. I decided to start from scratch and build a full software editor in Java for the synth. One that was also capable of organizing the patches and banks for it, making it easier for users to share patches or backup sounds. As with all projects, dreaming about it is relatively easy, but the final package took many, many hours. Once the editor was there, it was also a great tool to iron out the last bugs and add more MIDI features to the synth’s own firmware. The software was made available open-source through the MidiBox forum and I’ve been using it on a regular basis since.


The bare custom PCB


Power regulators, fuses and heat sinks in place (bottom left)


The 2HE 19″ case with the MIDI sockets and transformers fitted


The LCD board with home made illuminated push buttons and a rotary encoder (right)


The main PCB ready and in place. The rows of red capacitors are for the 8 ladder filters. On the top side: the 8 SID chips and the 4 PIC microcontrollers.


Frontpanel arrived! Wiring up the front and back panel connections


Same view from the other side (back of the LCD board)


The finished TR-3 polysynth…



ps. If you wondered why it’s called TR-3, have a look at first names of the people who’s creative endeavors met in this instrument: Thorsten Klose, Rick Jansen (who drew the Moog ladder schematic), Robert Moog, Rutger Vlek (who?).


Close-up of the LCD, buttons and rotary encoder


The MBSID V2 editor and librarian software


Getting started with Eurorack – part 2

Posted on Apr 11, 2016 by rutgervlek

Build a rock boys!

I know a few of you have been eagerly awaiting part two, so here it is! And let’s start with a picture… the MiniMoog! It’s the mother of synths, the sound that became iconic, everyone wants one, and the price for a vintage Mini keeps rising. Nearly all of its internals have been cloned and reincarnated in various Eurorack modules. I won’t point you to any specific brands or module types, but I’ll help you understand what you need to recreate the architecture of a MiniMoog as the basis of a Eurorack system. It’s simple and a great way to learn and expand from there.


A brief glance at the MiniMoog shows you 3 VCOs, a noise source, a mixer, a VCF (voltage controlled filter), two EGs (envelope generators) and a VCA. That’s basically the audio path of the MiniMoog, so if you want to do this in Eurorack, this is your shopping list:

  • 3x VCO 1x noise source (white and pink)
  • 1x 4-channel mixer
  • 1x VCF (low pass transistor ladder-filter)
  • 2x EG (envelope generator)
  • 1x VCA (audio)

Also, you want to be able to control it through a keyboard, or DAW. So add a MIDI-to-CV convertor to the list as well (unless you have a keyboard that puts out CV and gate). The MiniMoog also has a slew-generator on the keyboard CV voltage, which is used to create portamento effects. Some MIDI-to-CV converters have it built in, some don’t (in which case you can buy it as a separate module).

Now we get to the hidden parts of the MiniMoog, that you don’t see from the frontpanel, but are crucial to its capabilities. First of all (and still a bit visible from the outside): the third oscillator doubles as an LFO. You may be able to find a Eurorack module that can do this too, but I’d recommend going for one (or two) separate LFO modules. The output of the Mini’s ‘LFO’ is mixed (with a balance control) with the output of the noise generator into a modulation path for the VCOs and/or filter. To recreate this this you need an additional (CV) mixer with level controls or a balance knob. Also don’t forget how the Mini’s modulation wheel allows you to control the depth of modulation in this path (from LFO-noise mixer to VCO and filter). If you put a VCA in this path, you can feed the modulation wheel voltage (usually coming from the MIDI-to-CV convertor) into the CV input for depth control. You could do with one shared VCA for both VCO and filter modulation, but it makes more sense to have one for each.


An overview of the MiniMoog’s architecture recreated with Eurorack modules

Depending on your choice of filter and envelope generator, you may find you still lack control over the envelope depth to the filter. A small mixer between EG and filter would give you this, and it would also allow you to modulate the filter with many other signals simultaneously.

Lastly, you may need to route the output of one module to inputs on several other modules (for instance the noise, which goes into the main audio mixer, as well as into the modulation mixer). Somehow you need to split the signal, and this can be done in several ways:

  • there are patch cables for Eurorack that allow you to insert another cable on top of its connector (stackable)
  • so called passive multiples provide an input connected to several outputs
  • active multiples do the same, but buffer the signal such that you don’t lose signal when you need to divide it over lots of modules (otherwise you may notice the signal weakens a bit)

So let’s update the shopping list:

  • 3x VCO
  • 1x noise source (white and pink)
  • 1x 4-channel (audio) mixer
  • 1x VCF (low pass transistor ladder-filter)
  • 2x EG (envelope generator)
  • MIDI-to-CV convertor (with portamento, or separate slew module)
  • 2x LFO
  • 3x VCA (1x audio, 2x CV)
  • 2x 2-channel (CV) mixer
  • a few multiples (active or passive)

Strictly speaking, if you wish to copy each and every feature of the MiniMoog, you need another few more modules. A master volume control, line-level output and headphone output stage might be very handy (can often be found combined in a single module). And the external input is still missing. The 4-channel audio mixer needs to become 5-channel, and you need some way of lifting an external input to typical Eurorack levels (between +5V and -5V). Again, you can find dedicated modules for this, if you wish (sometimes including additional features like a microphone input, or envelope follower)

MiniMoog on steroids

If you select modules crucial to the sound character of the MiniMoog carefully, I bet you can get very very close to the sound of a MiniMoog, and it’s functionality. But this is Eurorack, so now I’d like to show you the benefits of going modular. This Euro-Mini can do a whole lot more than you thought!

Features that are now possible with the same set of modules, but that you can’t find on an original MiniMoog are for instance:

  • PWM! Pulse Width modulation is a very common option on Eurorack VCOs, and really adds to the sound flavours available.
  • Pitch envelopes! The envelope generator can be routed to one or several pitch inputs of the VCOs
  • Oscillator Sync! (most Eurorack VCOs allow for this)
  • Tremolo and panning effects: LFOs can now be routed to the VCAs you have and you can even build stereo effects with these
  • Allowing VCOs to modulate each-other (cross-FM)
  • A world of additional and more dynamic modulations:
    • Allowing EGs to modulate the depth of your LFOs through a VCA (gradually increasing vibrato depth)
    • Allowing LFOs to modulate each-other
    • audio rate filter modulation with a VCO, and an LFO adding slow movement at the same time
    • vibrato to the VCO and slow movement (second LFO) in the filter independently
    • more expressive control from your keyboard (velocity, after-touch, pitch-bender)

And that’s just the obvious ones. While experimenting, you are bound to discover many more sonic possibilities.


A case of….

When you start assembling ideas about a Eurorack system you probably have already stumbled upon the modular grid website, and if not I highly recommend it. It allows you to drag and drop, save and share concepts for a modular with modules from nearly all manufacturers. However, at some point your virtual plans need to emerge in the real world. In other words: you need a rack or case and a power supply. There are plenty of wonderful cases and rack systems that can be bought ready for use, but it’s also a lot of fun to build your own unique enclosure for the instrument you’re so carefully preparing to assemble. I’ll walk you through the options.

Most Eurorack modules conform to the standardized height of 3U (height units), which is the same metric as the height units used in 19″ rack world. In recent years, people have found need for an additional height standard for smaller utility modules (mixers, multiples, control knob, etc) and this became the 1U “tiles” height: exactly a third in size from a normal Eurorack module. Width is expressed in similar measures, using HP (horizontal pitch). Most module widths are rounded to an even number, and 2 HP is in most cases already too small for comfort (unless it’s just a few sockets for a multiple). Commercially available cases often accommodate up to 84 or 104 HPs. It’s also good to know, that if you already have a 19″ rack system, there are 84 HP width rail systems available that can be 19″ mounted. Most cases are of the upright type, but “skiff”cases are becoming more popular. These are lying horizontally on a desktop surface and have a shallow depth. This is something to be aware of when selecting modules, as not all modules will fit in such a shallow enclosure (modules that fit well are usually indicated as “skiff-friendly”, or have a depth roughly below 40 mm).

Below you can see the case I decided to build for my modular (deliberately fairly small). It provides 2 rows of 84 HP width and 3U height, and a single 84 HP row of 1U hight (for utility tiles). I’ve bought rails (e.g. part number “BGT GB 29L” from Reichelt) and had a bit of help from a furniture craftsman to create the wooden side panels to my specifications. In the bottom of the case, I left additional room for a pair of spring reverb cans. The rails are mounted such that the panels of the modules will be slightly slanted (a few degrees) to make it easier to work with when standing (e.g. on stage). On the back plane you can see I fitted a power supply (connecting to a mains power switch in the side of the left wooden cheek), as well as two so called “distribution boards”. These help to deliver the power to the connectors on the back of the Eurorack modules with a ribbon cable per module.


mycase_psu mycase_rails

Power to the people

Nearly all Eurorack modules require power. This is usually delivered from one central power supply unit (PSU) in a Eurorack case and distributed to the back of the modules in it through a distribution board or cable. The Eurorack format prescribes it delivers both +12V and -12V DC. Some modules also require an extra +5V DC line. This is usually specified per module by manufacturers.

For PSUs there are generally three options:

  1. Linear power supplies. This is a type of power supply that uses a large(ish) transformer to step the high AC mains voltage (110V or 230V) down to a more manageable AC voltage. This is then rectified and regulated to +12V, -12V (and +5V optionally). Only use well-regulated linear power supplies, as non-regulated linear power supplies may induce unwanted noise and instability in your instrument. They can be bought ready-made or as DIY kits. In the latter case you’ll be working with dangerously high voltages though! Be warned. Because the transformer windings are usually determined based on the mains voltage in your country, these supplies don’t normally work on foreign voltages (so if you’re a touring musician….). Linear power supplies are not at all efficient. This means that part of the current they are processing is turned into heat, which is a factor that may effect temperature sensitive modules (like VCOs and filters).
  2. Switch mode power supplies. These regulate the high mains AC voltage by very high speed switching into +12V, -12V (and optionally +5V ) DC lines. This proces potentially injects high-frequency noise in the supply lines, which may become audible as noise from your modules. In the past this was reason to avoid them for analog musical instruments, but modern good quality designs easily outperform linear power supplies in terms of noise and stability. They are light-weight (no heavy transformer) and much more efficient than their linear counter parts. Altogether I’d say they are now the preferred way to go. They’re generally too complex for DIY, but an affordable ready-made unit with excellent noise-performance can easily be found online (for instance the Meanwell RT-65B, part number “MW RT-65B” at Reichelt). Hooking it up still requires you to handle mains voltages, so be careful!
  3. An external adapter (line lump). This is for most the safest and easiest route, though not always the cheapest. You buy a sealed adapter that converts the mains voltage to a manageable and safer voltage. This is then further regulated to the right voltages for Eurorack by a separate module in your Eurorack system (see for instance by Synthrotek).
If you start out with a +12V and -12V power supply and you later find you still need the +5V line, you can get special convertor boards that generate a +5V line from the +12V line (see for instance Volts by Mutable Instruments). Make sure your +12V line can deliver the additional current required for this though.

About voltage and current

By far the most frequently asked question about power supplies is: how much amps do I need? To understand this question you need to know a little about voltages and currents (expressed in ampères, or miliampères). A great analogy to understand the difference is to think about water in a pipe with a pump on one side and a tap on the other. The pump (PSU) puts the water under pressure (the voltage). If you open the tap a little, water flows out (the current). For some applications (e.g. a washing machine) you need to have a lot of water flowing, so you request a lot of current. If the pump cannot keep up with this current flow, the pressure (voltage) will drop, or the pump will overheat. Now let’s take it back to the Eurorack system. Your PSU needs to be able to provide a constant voltage +12V and -12V (and +5V) at the amount of current that your modules demand from it. You can simply sum the current draw that each manufacturer specifies for a module per power rail. Have a look at this example for a set of fictive modules:








120 mA

80 mA

230 mA

47 mA

477 mA


100 mA

80 mA

200 mA

47 mA

427 mA


21 mA

50 mA

(not used)

(not used)

71 mA

If this is your complete system, and you don’t expect expansion, make sure the total current draw per rail is well within the maximum current specified per rail for you PSU (for instance one specified for a maximum of 500mA on both 12V rails, and 100mA on the +5V rail). In practice though, you’d probably want to keep room for expansion or future modules that draw a bit more current. In that case you could go with 1A (=1000mA) capacity per 12V rail, and 500mA for the +5V. This leaves you plenty of room for the future.

Power distribution

While there’s no harm in connecting a module directly to the PSU, it’s most practical to have a power distribution board (a.k.a. bus board) or cable in your system. You can get both ready made or as DIY kit. As the power distribution system is only connected to the low-voltage part of the PSU it’s relatively safe to handle. Following the Doepfer Eurorack specifications, there are two types of power connectors you could find on the back of a module: either 10-pin or 16-pin. Both carry several parallel ground lines, +12V and -12V. The 16-pin connector carries an additional +5V line, as well as a CV and gate line. The purpose of the latter will become clear in the next section. Cables to go between your distribution board and the back of your modules can also easily made yourself, for instance with the following parts:

  • 2×5 pin male IDC connector (e.g. part number “PFL 10” from Reichelt)
  • 2×8 pin male IDC connector (e.g. part number “PFL 16” from Reichelt)
  • 10 or 16 pin ribbon cable (e.g. part number “AWG 28-10G 10M” or “AWG 28-16G 10M” from Reichelt)
Check cable orientation! I can’t say this often enough. The one big flaw in the Eurorack specifications is that it allows the power cable to be connected in reverse. This can cause permanent damage to the module when power is applied, as many users have unfortunately experienced. Luckily most modern modules (including River modules) are designed with built-in protection against this. So caution is only really nescessary with older modules. Did I already mention: check cable orientation?

Ground control to major synth

As you probably want to play your modular from a keyboard or computer program (Cubase, Logic, Live) you’ll probably also want a MIDI-to-CV convertor that allows your computer or keyboard to talk to your modular. In some cases, you can benefit from a keyboard with CV/gate outputs. These outputs send control signals about pitch (CV) and when a key is pressed (gate) directly to your modular. They usually also convert the action of a pitch bender for you, and can provide separate CV outputs for key velocity, after-touch and other controller data. If you mainly plan to control your modular from your DAW, and you already own a (multi channel) audio interface, have a look at the collection of interfacing modules made by Expert Sleepers. These convert audio, rather than MIDI for use with your modular and can provide timing precision no MIDI interface can come close to.


Playing it loud

After having fantasized about a modular, and perhaps being on the brink of buying all those lovely modules, have you thought about how you’re going to connect them? A fair supply of mono mini-jack patch cables would come in handy. And how are you going to get the sound out of your modular into the world? This is a good time to thing about adding a module that provides a headphone connection. Also, bear in mind that the connections commonly used in studios are of the full-size jack kind, and carry “line level” signal, while your Eurorack modular uses mini jacks and they carry a signal that’s way to hot to feed into a line input. The easy and cheap solution is to have a mixer or VCA as the last module in the chain and attenuate the signal there to within “line level” specifications. The nicer and more professional solution is to have a dedicated output module that converts the modular signal level to “line level”. These modules typically also help in metering the output level, and sometimes support connections for headphones and other devices as well. Similarly, but going in the opposite direction, there are dedicated modules for feeding microphones, line level signals (sound card outputs, other synths, iPods) and guitars into your modular.

Checklist for getting started

  • Case with 3U rails and screws
  • Power supply that delivers +12V and -12V (+5V optional) and sufficient current
  • Power distribution system (either board or cable)
  • Power cables (either 10-pin or 16-pin)
  • Patch cables (mono 3.5mm mini jack)
  • MIDI-to-CV convertor, or other form of interfacing
  • Audio output at line-level (optionally: microphone/line input, headphone ouput, etc)

If you are still with me at this point I hope to have sparked your enthusiasm with mine. Whatever you decide to (not) do with Eurorack, I hope this tutorial has been informative and fun to read so far. I’ll take a short break to recharge and see what information is still lacking and be back soon with another blog post.

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.


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.


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.


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.


  • 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:
  • 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:
  • Highly addictive!


  • 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.

The Ocean project

Posted on Feb 08, 2016 by rutgervlek

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about ‘the synth in the banner’, so it’s time time to reveal the details about this rather special instrument.featured

Roughly 12 years go, after having brought back to life quite a few vintage synths, I felt like building my own instrument. For a year I have been working on the idea, drawing diagrams, searching for parts, and trying various circuits. At that time, I didn’t feel comfortable designing all the electronics myself, so I chose the safe(r) route and decided to use Oakley sound circuit boards for the crucial functions in the audio path.

Since I’m about 50% live performer and about 50% studio nerd, I had special wishes for this new synth. First of all, I was hoping to build a synth with “that” analog sound (the sound on records by Pink Floyd, Yes, ELP, etc). I wanted to have these sounds easily accessible for live use, yet keep the options for more complex studio sound design open. After considering something fully modular, I chose to keep it semi-modular (think Korg MS-20). Internally, all modules (functions) have a default connection, such that you can instantly play them, but also provide access points on a patch panel for more complex routing. Finally, I decided to go with these modules:

  • 3x VCO
  • 3x VCO octave switcher
  • 1x MidiDAC
  • 1x Super Ladder VCF
  • 1x Steiner Synthacon VCF (years before Arturia built it into the MiniBrute…)
  • 2x ADSR/VCA
  • 1x VC-LFO
  • 1x Equinoxe Phaser
  • 1x Ring Modulator
  • 1x dual VCA
  • 2x dual CV mixer
  • 1x sample & hold
  • 1x lag generator
  • 1x noise source (white, pink, IR)
  • 1x Output stage + headphone amp
  • 1x Power distribution board

Some circuit boards were already etched (the Oakley Sound ones), other modules were (re)designed and etched by me. In the pictures below you can see how these boards transformed into the Ocean synth.

A couple of months later the Ocean was announced ‘Keyboard of the month July (2006)’ in the international Keyboard Magazine. Michael Gallant writes: “… the Ocean is one beautiful monster of a keyboard”.

After completion I recorded a short piece of music with a lot of use for the Ocean (all, except drums, mellotron and strings). I apologize for it sounding slightly dated, given modern recording quality standards.


Working on the layout of the noise module in Eagle PCB.


Transparent sheet with the Steiner VCF design on it, and a blank UV-sensitive PCB.


The etched Steiner VCF and ring modulator PCB.

The finished noise and S&H modules sharing a board

The finished noise and S&H modules sharing a board

The three finished VCOs

The three finished VCOs

Backside of a temporary plywood front panel containing a first test setup (L->R): Midi DAC, VCO (in front the second VCO), Octave Switch, Steiner VCF, Output board, Power distribution board.

Backside of a temporary plywood front panel containing a first test setup (L->R): Midi DAC, VCO (in front the second VCO), Octave Switch, Steiner VCF, Output board, Power distribution board.

Working on the casing, using a keyboard cannibalized from an old MIDI controller.

Working on the casing, using a keyboard cannibalized from an old MIDI controller.

Finished casing with mains inlet and fitted pitch/mod wheels.

Finished casing with mains inlet and fitted pitch/mod wheels.

Powering up! The toroidal transformer, 15V regulators and the distribution board.

Powering up! The toroidal transformer, 15V regulators and the distribution board.

All circuitry fitted, just!

All circuitry fitted, just!

All systems go! A finished synth, at last!

All systems go! A finished synth, at last!

The Ocean backstage after an open-air concert at Elsrock 2006.

The Ocean backstage after an open-air concert at Elsrock 2006.

Introduction to VCAs

Posted on Jan 04, 2016 by rutgervlek

If you are into electronic music or music production you are most likely using VCAs. With or without knowing. They can be found in for instance analog synthesizers, effect devices, analog mixing desks, guitar pedals. If the abbreviation isn’t yet familiar to you, it will be by the end of this post as I will have used it 22 times by then.

In its simplest form, a VCA is nothing more than an amplifier with an input and an output for signals to be amplified, and a Control Voltage (CV) input that allows you to control the amount of amplification. With a high CV you get lots of amplification, with a low cv you get little amplification. You could almost say it’s a volume knob that gets controlled by voltage rather than by hand. Another way to look at VCAs is as a multiplier:

output = CV x input

With the exception that in regular VCAs this doesn’t work for negative CVs. If that’s what you want to do, you need a balanced modulator (a.k.a. ringmodulator).


Diagram of a VCA

In the case of VCAs in analog synthesizers, there are a three peculiarities worth knowing:

‘A’ for amplifier

While the A stands for amplifier, most synthesizer VCAs are actually voltage controlled attenuators. This means that when they are fed with the lowest possible CV, they attenuate the input signal to (almost) 0 and put out (nearly) nothing. When the highest possible CV is fed in, they do not attenuate at all. When they don’t, most VCAs pass the input signal to the output at ‘unity gain’: the level of the output remains identical to the signal input.

Lineair and exponential

I’ve been writing about the lowest and highest possible CV so far, but what happens to the attenuation in between these values? Well, that depends… At least you can expect the amount of attenuation to follow the CV smoothly from one value to the next, because of the nature of analog electronics (continuous, so no discrete steps, like in the digital world). In one category of VCAs, the attenuation follows the CV linearly. This means that when the CV doubles the ‘amplification’ also doubles (or actually the attenuation halves). This is called a ‘linear response’ VCA, and when amplification is drawn in a graph as a function of CV you will see a straight line.


Linear and exponential response

The other category is called ‘exponential response’ VCAs. These respond exponentially to incoming CVs. You can think of it this way: when you imagine a CV evenly and gradually rising from 0 to 5V, the exponential response makes the VCA’s output rise faster and faster as the CV gets closer to 5V. In a graph it looks like a curve (see figure above). Physically, this exponential response bears important similarities to the way we perceive loudness of sounds, meaning that it is very useful when synthesizing the loudness contours of a sound.

A VCA is not just a VCA

While amplifying or attenuating signals seems like a trivial task, an analog VCA often does a little more. Design choices, component selection and component limitations all impose a subtle character on the sound fed through the VCA. This character often becomes more prominent with higher signal levels, when the VCA is pushed into saturation.
Now you know the basics of VCAs. If you feel like experimenting with VCAs a bit, don’t forget they can do so much more than merely control the loudness of a sound (hint: how about using them to control the depth of filter envelopes with your keyboard velocity, or to gradually fade in vibrato with an envelope after a note is held).