A blogzine about modular synthesizers, music experiments and life without presets. Here you will find in-depth articles about trends and developments on the eurorack scene and market, inspiring music examples, tips and howtos and occasionally some news.
In the previous instalments of Modular Spaces we’ve been looking at all sorts of places for musical creation: wardrobes, corners and even people’s workplaces. This time, it’s the most obvious location you can imagine: the desk.
The two people featured in this article have one thing common: their desks are clean, minimal and focused places of musical creation. They are also polymorphic, in the sense that they change over time and can host different activities.
Björn Carlstedt aka Word Salad
For Björn it’s mostly been a reductionist journey. He used to have quite a bit of gear – synths, guitars, even a small drum kit – set up in his garage.
Then, things changed. “One day a friend and I packed my old Korg Poly-61 and went to his friends’ studio, to play around a little”, he tells me in the interview, “I felt I needed to add a small mono synth to this two-man party and bought a used Microbrute. To my surprise, the seller sent one of those 32 HP Doepfer systems, along with it. That was the beginning of my Eurorack journey”.
Since going the Eurorack route, his setup has shrunk down to just the modular, a couple of guitars and some tape-related devices. Now needing less space, Björn decided to repurpose the house’s guest room as a studio. Initially everything was set up in an improvised and not very ergonomic fashion, but then he decided to mount some shelves on the wall, one becoming a sort of small desk.
Since setting up this little corner, Björn finds that making music is a more joyful process. But it’s not just about the productivity boost: the room has a nice bed sofa and bookshelf on the opposite side from the gear. Björn likes to make a soothing patch, then relax and read a book while listening to the music or have a drink with a friend.
Of course there’s also some practical aspects: “Nowadays I can have all my stuff connected at all time – which wasn’t possible earlier – and even do some wiggling, without getting a sore back”.
It took Björn 3 years to build this little corner and he’s now pretty happy with it, but of course, it’s a bit like a living creature: it keeps evolving and changing.
Lately things got moved around and the desk became an upright piano. “I’m getting back to guitars and piano to integrate with the modular and I am trying to focus more on playing live with it” he explains.
Björn’s focus with the modular is getting away from the more technical, gear-related aspects. He likes to let the music be just music.
“I used to be an oil painter a while back” he tells me, “and I think the workflow [with the modular] is somewhat related. You need to stop before it all gets muddy.”
Sometimes, when passing that threshold, he just gets frustrated and starts over. This doesn’t change his love and fascination for the instrument though. He likes that the modular is an ever-changing entity: “melodies can be saved but everything around it will never sound the same. There’s always a hunt for something that just feels right in the moment.”
Actually I could have included this in the Work/Life Balance Article, because Matthias’ music desk is located in his and his partner’s office room, but it seemed more fitting here.
The room isn’t big, and the desk is also being used for software development, building things and other work-related activities. For this reason, he had to hang the modular on the wall. “It’s not very practical, because I have to bend over the desk to patch” he tells me in the interview, and explains that he’s planning to have a new, more narrow desk made. Fun fact: his case is made out of scrap wood and gaffa tape. For this reason Matthias is also looking for a more durable and portable casing solution.
Badalisc (from The Wire Tapper 44) - SoundCloud (230 secs long, 1715 plays)Play in SoundCloud
One peculiar aspect of Matthias’ music corner is the abundance of speakers, even though you can only see two pairs of them here. As he tells me in the interview: “I recently went through a phase of compulsively buying speakers and amps; there are now more pairs of speakers than there are rooms in my apartment”.
The Klein+Hummel hi-fi speakers you can see in the photo below, are from the 70s. Matthias uses them for reference and casual listening. Not only do they look good and lend a special vibe to the desk, Matthias asserts that they also sound great.
The world of modular synthesis is sometimes a world made of solitary exploration, of musical monologues. You don’t encounter many projects that involve more than one person, let alone “modular bands”. It’s neither good nor bad and there’s many things that could be said about this, but I’ll leave that for another article.
Lucid Grain is a duo, formed by Munich-based Martha Bahr and Anatol Locker. Not only do they work as duo, but they also perform live. The combination of these things can be a bit of a challenge, at least in my personal experience.
For this Chosen Wave we’ve chosen the recording of a live performance, which also happens to be a milestone in the duo’s inception.
Festival für elektronische Live-Musik /w Lucid Grain - SoundCloud (1744 secs long)Play in SoundCloud
Horizontalpitch: what’s your musical background?
Martha Bahr: I actually got in contact with music quite young. I got piano lessons as a child, I sang in the school choir for many years and also my parents loved to listen to music like The Doors, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra and many more, as often as possible. Finally I started my own band when I was a teenager. I played guitar and was the lead singer. Being 20 years old I decided to go to the SAE Institute here in Munich, and made my Diploma as an Audio Engineer there. So I was in contact with audio my whole life: in private, by making music anytime possible and in my professional life, by working as an audio engineer, remixer, sound designer, composer and writer for several companies. I consider myself very lucky to be able to do what I love most, in so many different ways, with so many different people.
Anatol Locker: My musical journey is pretty much identical to Martha’s, I only started some years earlier. Classical piano lessons as a teenager, keyboard and drums in school bands, loved singing in the school choir (we had an amazing conductor). As a teenager, I got hold of Can’s Monster Movie, which I found equally fascinating and disturbing. It sparked my interest in the experimental side of music, and I was lucky enough to follow that path by working as a game, tech, and music journalist. I met and interviewed all of my musical heroes during these days (Peter Gabriel, Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, Donald Fagen, etc.). In the late Nineties, music business was booming, there were tons of great brands around, lots of experimentation going on. HipHop, the early German club scene, and Electronica became an important part of my life. That’s when I started making music again, instead of just listening to it.
HP: what’s your story with the modular? How did you first find out about it? When did you realize that you wanted to use one to make music?
MB: About 8-9 years ago I went to the local music store here in Munich called Hieber Lindberg to have a look at the instruments they had and to maybe test the one or the other. And there in the synthesizer department it was: a 6U Doepfer A-100 system, such a beauty! I needed to have one right away, I was totally fascinated after this first encounter and still am. In the beginning I used it more for exploring unusual sounds, to experiment and learn as much as possible from this unusual instrument and then sample the outcome, using it in the tracks that I produced in my DAW. That was my workflow for several years until I went to the Musikmesse in Frankfurt some years ago and found the Superbooth by Andreas Schneider – with all those different manufacturers, their beautiful modules and cases and not to forget all those freaks, nerds, experts in tunics and newbies, who where utterly fascinated by all of this. More and more people started using modulars again and that also inspired me to use it more and more as a stand alone instrument, which I am doing now on a regularly basis.
AL: I’m relatively new to the modular world. I first heard about Eurorack in the late 90s, but back then, it didn’t click, as I was getting into DAWs back then. In December 2016, a friend was kind enough to lend me his case. The day I gave it back I ordered a Make Noise System Concrete. Since then, there was no turning back. It totally changed the way I approach music and probably catapulted me even further away from what people consider to be „listenable”. My case has grown to 84HP / 9U and I suffer from serious „gear acquisition syndrome“ – it’s like Pokemon, but with real money.
HP: About the name, Lucid Grain, where does that come from and what does it mean to you?
AL: The genesis of the name is pretty straightforward. We had to find a name for our project, so we brainstormed for a while. We had a list of a dozen names; “Lucid Grain” sounded like it summed up everything we wanted. A “lucid dream” is a dream during which the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming – and to some degree can even control what they’re dreaming. “Grains” had to do with a) granular synthesis method and b) with a grain being the smallest available bit you can use to construct a sound. To our ears, this combination sounded just right.
HP: What does “playing a modular” mean for you?
MB: Playing a modular for me means first and foremost to experience music in a new and fascinating, inspiring way every time I power my case on. The most important thing to me is to explore how to do things differently than I did before, to use it in a different way than how I make music in my DAW, on a guitar, a piano or an MPC for example. It also means to welcome as many “happy little accidents” and mistakes as possible, as those are usually unintended by nature and therefore open up new perspectives on how to make and experience music.
AL: It’s all about losing control (and not being afraid about it). I don’t start patching with a fixed idea in mind. Even if I would, I end up somewhere totally different. For me, getting a pre-meditated result from a modular synth is somehow neglecting its true strength. A nicely balanced system offers sweet spots that are always worth exploring. On a modular, you patch a cable here, tweak a knob there, and suddenly you find yourself in a magical world of sounds, patterns, and timbres you never heard before. It’s a bit like Zen meditation: Breathe, relax, let things unfold. I also love the fact that nothing is really repeatable. With a turn of one single knob, premises can totally change. For me, that’s a nice allegory of life itself – including the frustration that sometimes the magic just doesn’t want to happen.
Lucid Grain - Tiles - YouTube
HP: Most modular musicians I happen talk with are male, in fact you’re the first woman I am able to interview for this blog, so I need to ask this: do you feel the modular world signals openness and inclusiveness towards women?
MB: Very much so, yes. People who are into modulars are in general very open-minded and easy going in my experience. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what gender you are, what background you have or if you’re a noob or a pro already, everyone is welcome and this is one thing among many that I love about the modular scene.
I’ve been working in the audio industry as an audio engineer, sound designer and composer for about 15 years now and I also experienced situations in which females were not welcome and had to fight more than their male colleagues.
The modular scene on the other hand not only signals openness but also encourages women to participate, to play live, to attend workshops and meetups. And that’s something I experienced everywhere I went so far, be it at Superbooth in Berlin, at the modular meetup in Vienna, at Ars Electronica in Linz, at the Happy Knobbing event in Fischbach. I even co-organised the Knobs&Wires festival here in Munich recently, which was just great, so many good vibes and lovely folks here.
And it really shouldn’t matter what gender you belong to as long as you’re passionate and persistent about what you’re doing – the rest usually falls into place.
AL: I couldn’t agree more. Especially in the professional music business, women are underrepresented. Just take a look at the lineup of music festivals: You won’t find more than 10 percent female bands headlining. And when it comes to music industry or label bosses, you’re in the Old Boys Club. And in my opinion, that’s a crying shame.
Lucid Grain - Cercles (Live at Digitalanalog 2018) - YouTube
HP: One thing I find very interesting about you two is that you play as a duo. While there certainly is a fair number of modular-based projects, that involve two or more musicians, most of the time this instrument is a bit of a solitary one. Do you have clearly defined roles in the “band” or how does it work?
AL: For Rise&Fall, we actually didn’t even know what the other one had prepared sound-wise until we started jamming and improvising. The only thing we did was make sure our scales didn’t clash. We adjusted the notes just when we actually met for the jam. It was a very exciting and also liberating approach for us, that kept the music very fresh and lively in our ears.
For our next album we chose a slightly modified workflow. Instead of pure jamming, one of us prepares a first draft and sends it to the other one. This can be a melody, a bass line, some chord progressions, an interesting sample. The other one then has enough time to „fill the gaps“ and compose accordingly.
The day we meet, we hear for the first time what the other one has prepared. This makes jamming much more exciting.
We usually jam three to five times over each track (10 to 20 minutes max), so everything stays fresh and spontaneous. We use the first take as a pure orientation piece – you wouldn’t want to listen to that. But after the first take, we have a good feeling of how the parts will fit together.
If we think a track is good enough for publication, we isolate the best take and throw out 20 to 30 percent, so that it can make it on the album.
And sure: While performing, it’s always hard to listen to what the other one’s doing and trying hard not to fall into the „Modular Attention Deficit Syndrome (MADS).“ Performing with a modular can be very demanding on your attention. If one of us gets carried away, the other one is kind enough to hold his / her horses for a while and give the „soloist“ more room. But you are right: You can tweak for hours and then „wake up“ to find you didn’t even know how much time has passed. So playing as a duo is a bit like dancing – it’s way more fun together, but you have to make sure not to step on your partner’s toes.
HP: I didn’t know the Festival für elektronische Music in Munich before hearing your liveset but it seems like a cool event. How did this live gig come about?
AL: We had our first gig at Festival für Elektronische Musik in Munich, which also had its premiere. We heard about it through Ambiosonics, a jam session collective in which I play. We rehearsed a lot for this gig, as the modular cases were the centerpiece of the set and we didn’t want to totally improvise on stage. We had a blast playing for 40 minutes and managed to squeeze in three different musical patches. The gig was huge fun. Then there was another concert at POP – Der Laden in Berlin during Superbooth. The record store is closely affiliated to Kurt “Pyrolator” Dahlke, which most people know from D.A.F., Fehlfarben and the legendary music label Ata Tak. We were glad to play as a kind of “birthday” band for him, together with our Ambiosonics mate Florian Anwander, who had organized the gig. Again, it was a total blast.
HP: Gigging and recording with a modular sometimes seems to require very different approaches, how do you make those two work together?
MB: […] playing live with a modular takes up quite some time compared to our studio works, especially as your case is blocked for that gig and you can’t use it for other purposes for the time being. But it’s totally worth the time, as you work differently when preparing for a live gig. It’s another mindset that leads to other musical results and lets you use your gear differently. I really like the challenge of rehearsing a set that is possibly the best you can offer at that specific time and also leaves enough room for improvisation. That is the most fun part of playing live: to dive into that very moment, experiencing all those contradictory emotions like being excited, nervous and enjoying it all at the same time, to then letting the music take over and leading the rest of the way, a really beautiful experience. Also it’s really fun to play on a big P.A. and see what your mix sounds like in other environments.
HP: You seem to really like using vintage spoken-word recordings for both your recorded music and your live performances. Where do all those recordings come from and what is you fascination with using these?
AL: On our last album, these vintage samples were very much in the foreground. I’m mainly responsible for this. Martha and I share the interest in science fiction, so she thankfully let me fire off these vintage podcasts.
A decade ago, I got hooked on X Minus One, an American radio drama series from the 50ies. It offers excellent stories from classic sci-fi authors like Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, Pohl, Sheckley and Silverberg – overall, it‘s like Twilight Zone for your ears. Sonically, it’s extremely interesting audio material, as the speakers were driven to deliver the story with passion and coolness alike. There’s also that underlying sound of old tape. That alone is worth listening to: there’s saturation and hum, hiss, noises and crackles. With these samples, I wanted to bring that quality to our sound.
Currently, I’m interested in the sounds of shortwave radio. The stations themselves are not particularly rewarding, but what happens in between them is a sonic empire of its own. That static doesn’t sound static to me: It’s loud, brutal, noisy, full of Morse code, killer voices and strange modulations. In my humble opinion, most noise artists’ performances can‘t compete with that harshness.
On our next album, which we’ve just finished recording, we included some of these shortwave samples – but they are not prominent anymore.
It’s been quite a while since the last Modular Spaces installment, but we’re back with a very special one. I’m calling this “work/music” balance, and it’s a topic that touches me personally quite a bit.
As somebody who works in design for the music (instruments) industry, but also dabbles in the creation of the music itself, I often find myself facing a dilemma: should I do some paid work, or just relax for a moment in front of the modular? Taking breaks boosts productivity, we all know that, but it’s easy to get carried away and turn that 10min break into a full hour of wiggling.
The dilemma can be even more pronounced if work and play take place in the same space, and that’s exactly where this article comes in. Let’s look at two people who use their space both for work and music!
Brian Anderson, aka Polyoptics
The first thing you notice about Brian’s music space is the window, the view.
Undeniably this feels like a place that makes you want to create some music. “It’s great to be able to open the window and capture some bird sounds or something to make a nice backdrop behind a bunch of weird electronic synthy sounds.” Brian tells me.
His studio is a corner in his office. It is very small, made up of a slim black desk (another Ikea find) and little more. The case was mounted to the wall, to keep the desk clean and organized. At the same time, the latter is shallow enough to make it comfortable to reach for the moduar.
Brian wanted to make a case of his own, so he got a brief case from Etsy and tried his hand at some DIY. I managed to set it on fire a couple of times while cutting through the metal on the inside… but had a slimline 2x 84hp case of my own in the end” he tells me during the interview. Life is not easy for those who DIY.
Despite the difficulties, there’s a beauty in making your own instrument, Brian continues: “I guess it’s one of the least important parts of music making, but I’ve found that the more of a personal attachment I have to these things I spend so much time with, the more fun I have with the whole process. Personal customization is what I enjoy most about modular systems; the case and workspace is a fun extension of that.”
Vito’s desk is half music and half architecture, except, it’s not really like that: “Since architecture is a very time consuming effort the half/half thing is mostly spacial. The time ratio is architecture all the time with some synth breaks. I’m an architect living in São Paulo, Brazil. I do mostly collaborative works with other offices.”
Still, it seems like a good idea to take some “synth breaks” to keep the motivation high and work better.
This is not the only sound-related activity Vito pursues. With a friend (who is also an architect) he has an electro-acoustic duo called yf. For the São Paulo Architecture Biennial they worked on a sound map, created using 64 speakers that reproduce recordings from the city.
There is a historically interesting link between architecture and music/sound. Music concrète, Xenakis, Varése’s and Le Corbusier’s work on the Philips Pavilion, the IRCAM building by Renzo Piano, Nuno Canavarro (who studied architecture at Oporto School) are among Vito’s many sources of inspiration.
It does not come to big surprise that Vito is very influenced by Bernhard Leitner, famous for his work on the relationship between sound, space, and body.
I ask him how, or if, his work as an architect reflects on the ways he approaches the modular. “I’m always thinking on how to organize functions into form and that involves more ‘removing than adding’.” he replies, “On top of that the so-called ‘paulista architecture’ is very stern and austere, with its modernist obsession with ‘truth’ regarding materials and building methods (this is the school I went to, for example). I don’t really buy into the moral overtones of raw materials and whatnot, but these are things that have influenced me a lot, whether I like it or not.”
When it comes to the modular synth, he seems to be mostly fascinated by the idea of music-as-machine. “[…] I think it relates to some aspects of architecture. To stablish relations between independent sets of functions and processes as to create a whole…”, he elaborates further “Music is closely related to its space of composition or performance, but since electronic music can be created and performed without any specific setting, its relationship to space is particularly open. A very interesting quality, imo.”
Did you know that there is a Synth Museum in Switzerland?
They are called Swiss Museum & Center for Electronic Music Instruments (SMEM) and are currently running a Kickstarter campaign to fund what they call Playroom: a space that will offer hands-on access to the museum’s collection and much more.
If you’ve been following this blog for some time you’ll know that we usually don’t post about news, but this somehow caught my attention. The obsessive synth ownership syndrome we experience daily online has given me much to think about lately. It manifests itself in various ways: in the many gear acquisition syndrome (GAS) threads, when people buy something just to sell it 5 minutes later, or when people spend horrendous amounts of cash for some vintage piece of kit.
Don’t get me wrong, electronic music gear is very fascinating to me. Why would I have gotten into the design of electronic instruments if that were not the case? I’m certainly not immune to lusting over a new piece of gear, all the contrary! But still, there’s something about GAS that feels kind of wrong to me.
So where does the SMEM fit into all of this? Sometimes you want to check out a piece of gear just for curiosity’s sake. Maybe you are trying to find your own sound, your own way of making music. Maybe you’re trying to figure out if going modular could suit, or you want to explore different instruments to see which could best fit you. Maybe you want to hear with your own ears if the 808 is really is up to its hype, or you need one for a couple of hours to finish your track. Other times you’ll just want to play around with a new instrument, to get out of your rut.
There’s many reasons for being interested in a synth or an fx box, and many of them do not have much to do with long-time commitment. But nonetheless they all have a right to exist. Right now, to satisfy many of these needs you’ll have little options but to buy some stuff and perhaps then sell it again.
SMEM’s Playroom on the other hand will enable you to try out things in a different way. For a very reasonable price you can spend time with all of the cool stuff they have in the museum. You might discover things you didn’t even know existed – they have quite a few rare and little known ones in there – meet people, learn something new.
The Playroom will be a unique space dedicated to electronic instruments, their long history, uses, and more. The open space will be made specially for a broad audience to play with, learn about, use, and record instruments and effects – all from the SMEM collection and other donations of instruments.
Yello @ SMEM
But hey, there is even more!
The cool people behind SMEM are planning to do much more than letting you use their synths! There’s gonna be workshops, talks, showcases and a space to have a drink and a chat.
Our utopian future is a space that looks like a big warehouse, with rooms for reading about synthesis / music history / music theory, rooms for proper recording, rooms for jamming and discovering instruments, rooms for having lunch – in that ideal future the SMEM is a place where you can spend an entire day without getting bored. Much much more than a museum.
Victorien Genna – SMEM
Personally I find it refreshing to see an initiative based on sharing, not owning, but of course there’s many other reasons to like what they are doing. SMEM’s intention is not to be a crusade against GAS, that’s more my personal interpretation of the collateral benefits. They have their own set of goals: It’s a place about learning and discovering. A place where you can socialize. A place about making electronic music. And yes, ultimately, also place where you can get all the gear you’ve always dreamed about, without having to go shopping.
So, go ahead and check their Kickstarter campaign out! They deserve all the help they can get to make this happen!
In the first Modular Spaces episode we looked at wardrobes and closets. Spaces where music-making and the rest of life can be clearly separated when needed.
In this new episode we’ll look at the opposite approach: here the musical space is part of a bigger whole. We’ll see corners, niches, slim tables beneath windows and instruments living on windowsills.
Just like in the previous episode, our interest isn’t so much to just showcase tiny spaces, but rather to look into what people are capable of doing with the little space they have.
We’ll see how they come up with strategies to make their spaces inspiring, efficient and harmonious and how they face the many challenges they are presented with.
Jørgen Bjella aka Plymhhh
Jørgen’s space is definitely one that wants me to just get in there and make some music. There’s many things to love about it: the big window, the sunny atmosphere. And then there’s the plants!
When setting up his little studio corner ,Jørgen wanted to get away from the dark rehearsal spaces he was used to. For his musical creation process, natural light felt more inspiring.
“Since the studio is the place at our apartment where there is most light, it is also naturally the best place for our plants”, he tells me in the interview. The musical instruments and the plants go along pretty well. The combination makes for a cozy and harmonious location to make music in.
"....it's full of stars" /// Eurorack /// Monome, Tonestar 8106, Morphagene, Rings, 0-coast + STO - YouTube
Since I first talked to Jørgen, he and his partner also started to grow tomato and chili plants: “I think their presence has somehow inspired some of the music that I’ve been making. It is very fun to see the plants grow from day to day”.
This comes to no wonder, since plants and electronic music have quite a history (see John Cages experiments for example).
His setup is quite varied. The modular synth, Ableton Live and a monome norns (a new entry) meet a Fender Jazzmaster and an old zither. The latter he particularly loves: “Goes in and out of tune easily, sounds as nice as it sounds horrific. Looks amazing”.
Having your musical studio in the living room is of course not easy. In the last episode we’ve seen how some people prefer to put everything into a cuboard/wardrobe, for this very reason. Jørgen has found a different solution: “As much as I love having a little studio corner in our living room, the downside is: it’s always there… I can’t really hide it. So if I get tired or frustrated with a project I must either go to bed or get cooking.”
Hallvard’s studio is located in the spare corner of his and his partner’s home office. The room is mainly used to pay bills and, more rarely, to work from home. “After my office and synth room became our wonderful daughter’s bedroom in our previous apartment, we moved last year and the synth is back in a spare room. Feels great!” he tells me, and I secretly nod, I know that story all too well.
“Less is more” seems to be Hallvard’s motto when it comes to making music: “The modular setup is sort of minimized from a larger setup which became overwhelming to me, since I normally only have an hour or so when I sit down with my instrument.” Being a Physicist working in research, his time for making music can be little, plus he likes to stay away from the computer and from having “too many options”.
Hallvard began his journey into synthesizers with DIY MFOS instruments, his first synth was a MFOS Soundlab Ultimate and its companion sequencer, which can be seen on the shelf in the photo.
Later Eurorack took over. Space restrictions, but also the power of available modules, were the main driving forces behind the shift.
When I ask him if he ever dreams about having a big set-up or studio, he says: “I think I have been through the cycle of: first wanting more and more options/gear, then discovering what I really like and that I had too much, then reducing and refining my setup”. Apartments are pretty expensive in Oslo, especially if you want one in a central location, but Hallvard isn’t too bothered by the lack of space: “As long as I have a dedicated desk for it I am happy”. Still, he admits that if he was to move to a bigger place, he’d probably have a room just for synths, DIY and listening to music.
His space looks cozy and inspiring, “I do this for relaxing, and out of a fascination and love for music and the technology behind it.” he tells me in the interview. Hallvard also likes to take out the Modular sometimes: “I have the portable Doepfer case, since I have jammed with some friends a couple of times, and portability is important to me even though it has been in that room now for a long while”.
Simon went to Montreal to study Computation Arts at Concordia University. As most students who are away from home, he lives in a one-room apartment.
His studies involve mathematics, programming and art, combining some of his great interests. Apart from that, he also plays the cello and the modular and more rarely guitar and piano.
As you can imagine, fitting your life, passions and studies into one room isn’t easy. “The principal annoyance I had with using the same, small space for everything is that some things can’t happen concurrently” Simon tells me, but that’s not the only problem. Fitting even just a few things in such a tiny space can be a challenge. One must be open to accept compromises: “The desk was too small for both the computer and the modular, so I had to put the modular next to the window, between the speakers: this meant speakers were on my side when I used the computer, and that I was too close to them when I used the modular”.
He’d love to keep the cello set up, out of its case, ready to play, but there’s just no room for that, “Being able to take short breaks off studying that way would have been fun.” Instead he uses the modular during the breaks, and with interesting results I’d say.
The above piece is a recording made in preparation for his first modular live performance: A quadrophonic piece he played at his University. It combines a synth voice (playing harmonic variations of a sequence) and a chopped-up recording of a previously-recorded piano improvisation.
The modular has been an interesting challenge for Simon, who comes from an acoustic-instrument background. “I was searching for the level of expressiveness and instant control you get playing an instrument you’re familiar with” he tells me, “What worked well was expressiveness through timbral control; I knew my modules and sound synthesis concepts very well, making this easy and highly rewarding”.
This alone wasn’t enough for Simon, and reaching for a MIDI keyboard or sequencer to fill in the gaps also didn’t work well. In the end the solution was to surrender control to generative algorithms and use that as part of his compositional approach. The piano came back in form of samples: “I really enjoy playing around with large and weird chords, which can’t be done easily with the modular or the cello. So I often record, to later re-arrange and granulate it.”
arps is the first album by Raleigh-based John Mitchell, aka midcentury modular. His work has been influenced by some of the known acts from the modular world, mostly: Matthias Puech with his A Year Of Time and Emily Sprague’s Water Memory. Still, he has his own voice and focus when it comes to composition and process.
There’s a reason I’m mentioning his influences right at the beginning, though I’m sure you’ve already spotted the pattern. For some time I have been looking with great interest at the vibrant community forming around what I’d loosely call “modular ambient”. This of course informs my choices when it comes to these Chosen Waves articles, but I also like how they form a bigger story. They are a picture of what is currently going on in the modular community, or at least a part of it. I should note though, that it will always be a bit of a partial picture; a fragment. Some voices are missing. Interesting – maybe even fundamental – works and acts are not present. But I see Horizontalpitch as being just one part of a bigger puzzle, which you have to solve yourself.
When John’s tape came out some time ago, I knew that he was part of this bigger story. So here comes this new chosen wave: arp of contemplation!
Horizontalpitch: What’s your musical background?
John Mitchell: When I was a kid, I did piano, and later, guitar lessons, though I was never very intensely focused and disciplined about it. I started spending more time doing music stuff in college. I was a DJ and helped curate the music selection for my college radio station. I ran sound at live events the station put on and started to do some recording stuff for friends’ bands with a pretty minimal/DIY setup. I also started playing guitar in a shoegaze-y band that would play around town called Less Western.
HP: What’s your story with the modular? How did you first find out about it? When did you realize that you wanted to use one in your music?
JM: While in college, I took a course on computer music composition, that also acted as a historical survey of academic electronic music. That was my first exposure to some early computer music composers and the machines they were using, as well as the first time I had started to get into the technical details of various synthesis techniques in terms of my own creations. Between that, messing around with the Ableton synths, and an interest and growing collection of guitar pedals, I discovered modular synths through online forums.
The first modular softsynth I tried was BEAP, which is a set of modules that you can patch in Max. The first Moogfest in Durham (where I lived), that happened in 2016, was the first time I got to use hardware synth modules. At that point, I had read a lot about various modules and formats, and trying things out (and finding myself continually going back over the weekend to the marketplace, excited to try more things out) made me decide it was something I was ready to jump into. I started my first system with a couple of modules (the Mutable Instruments Elements and Peaks). Since then, I have built up my system to 7u/84hp—where I’m trying to stay! I’ve also picked up some soldering skills to build a few kits, played some shows, helped develop a website for a module maker (which is how I met you!), did some open source contributions to the HTML documentation and C++ codebase of the Monome Teletype and released this cassette with some of my recordings with the modular.
John and Ross Gongaware performing at a house venue called “Diner 105”. Photo by John Kovalchik.
HP: What does “playing a modular” mean to you?
JM: In terms of recording, I’ve explored different integrations between the hardware system and the computer (such as MIDI and CV control through a DC-coupled audio interface), but I think I most like treating the computer as a polisher/combiner/cataloger of ideas that are more or less one-offs from the hardware. I’ll build up a patch from a sound or technique I’m interested in experimenting with and record a take of that in the same session.
In terms of live performance, it’s been a process of trying different things to build up confidence and find what I enjoy. I’ve tried things that are largely improvised (which has been hit or miss – the misses can be stressful) to having things be largely recording/laptop-based and having the modular be used for a couple of voices sequenced through midi (which felt a little too rigid and kind of boring to perform). I’ve settled into preparing an all-modular patch beforehand with 3-5 voices. I’ll practice with that “interface” enough to understand which parameters can be changed to interesting effect over time, and have a vague idea of where I want things to go. Right now, I don’t currently use a “playable” interface like a keyboard, and rather will build up a variable sequencing system with the Monome Teletype, controlled in some way by the knobs on the TXi input
Conceptually, I love the concept of a modular system as an orchestra, with multiple voices that can be controlled and manipulated in various ways (Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, whose music is a huge inspiration to me, introduced me to this concept in this video).
HP: I guess arps was created more or less following this approach, wasn’t it? Can you tell me a bit more about your process for this album?
JM: Yep! arps has recordings that range from a few months after starting my system to somewhat recent and has a bit of all these phases of my process.
I try to be good about recording everything and organizing it (with playable bounces) in Splice so that I can reference them whenever I’m inspired to. I treat recordings, which are typically summed, stereo bounces, a bit like raw resources waiting to be spliced together, overdubbed and referenced next to each other to build out a larger idea. I had been reading and reflecting on people’s ideas they had shared on this great thread on lines called Executing the modular album, when I decided one day, while at a coffee shop, that I was going to go through my recordings and find some things that felt like they flowed together. I decided the track order pretty impulsively and quickly, right then. The spectrums ended up getting swapped eventually, but otherwise this stayed intact.
A few days later, I listened to a quick mix of the raw versions of these tracks while exercising on the elliptical which is when I figured out how I wanted to bring it together into something cohesive aesthetically. I completed that process over the next few weeks – taking the bounces of the tracks and running them through various processors, to make everything more full and in a drenched and dense space.
The idea of “songs”, in terms of iteration on singular and defined musical ideas, is a pretty recent path I’ve been exploring, and I would say it’s pretty non-existent in the arps creative timeframe.
John’s performance rig.
HP: Regarding your recording process, when do the pedals come into play? You make quite a heavy use of them, and I’d argue that they make up a consistent part of you sound. Do you always run everything through them? Or do you leave that for the second phase of the process?
JM: One tricky thing with some pedals is that they can lack head room. Gain staging can mean a lot of attenuating and boosting as you go in and out from pedals to modular. Because of this, I do tend towards running pedals end of chain, post-modular (especially more so now that everything is on the board). In the current iteration of the system I run things through the effects in the same phase. On arps, I explored sending and returning with my audio interface and Ableton so that I could have more fine grain control, but I’ve found that fixing the latency and setting up the routing for this kind of thing is pretty cumbersome and the troubleshooting required can be a bit of a creative hindrance. I may explore a more traditional mixer setup, with the effects on send/return at some point. With arps, I was pretty heavy handed with reverb, delay and saturation/overdrive. The creative process for many of the tracks was like I was trying to build up a full environment for a small amount of voices to live in, rather than juggle a lot of complex, primary melodic voices and lines. The processing and effects sit forward in the mix and become a big part of the overall sound because of it.
HP: Did you ever want to replace all your pedals with fx modules?
JM: I do think there would be some usability advantages to an all-module setup – being able to have everything in a single case would be an improvement over my current pedalboard-based setup, which I really enjoy because it is contained and portable, though it is still somewhat cumbersome and heavy.
I feel like there aren’t a lot of great module alternatives to the pedals I currently use in my setup (Meris Polymoon and Mercury7, Boss RE-20 Space Echo, and Elektron Analog Heat). The designs are either mono – I really prefer to work with effects in stereo as it helps to build up the space, too wide for the size/capability I’m trying to keep things at, or not a lot of interesting parameters to tweak/modulate.
HP: how did you choose the track names on arps? What do they mean?
JM: I came up with the concept of the “arp of” prefix around the time I was compiling the things I wanted in the release. The specific names for particular tracks are varied – some are attempts at describing the sound I was going for, some are about things that were going on in my life when they were recorded. I’m not the most deliberate or intentional when it comes to names, I usually settle on the first idea that feels close-ish.
HP: Will you be playing some of arps live as well? Or have you done that already? If you are, how do you go from something that is aimed at being a recording to something you can play live?
JM: I haven’t played the particular songs out before, and I’m bad about persisting teletype patches and other sequencing data. I like the idea I learned at one of Emily Sprague’s workshops at Moogfest this past year: Of modular patches existing in a particular place and time. That beings said, I’d definitely be happy to explore some of the concepts, voice architecture and overall vibes again.
HP: To close this interview, what is coming next from Midcentury Modular? Upcoming projects?
JM: Sure! The next project is going to be a record called drones. Compared to arps, it is a bit less lo-fi and a bit more ranging across the frequency spectrum. It’s all synthesized sounds from the eurorack/pedal system, most of the tracks being combinations of 2 or 3 patches mixed on top of each other. I am finishing up the mixes and starting the process of getting the album art, layout and physical production finished. I’ve also got a collaborative video project in the works for one of the tracks on drones. I’m super excited to see what comes of that!