Synthrotek is a company that has built their business on affordable DIY kits for Eurorack. But it has also sold built modules of these kits. Synthrotek will soon putting out small complete systems, the first being a two voice synthesizer. They are likely going to be an affordable option for those seeking an entry into Eurorack, or a quick way to expand for those who have something like the Moog Mother-32. The pricing is still not available though, but it will be soon.
My Eurorack system these days is looking kind of sad. I cleared out and sold many modules to fund a Serge/Ian Fritz (4U) modular synthesizer system. They were mostly modules which were no longer fitting my specific workflow, so they rarely were used. This was not for an active dislike of Eurorack modular synthesizers, I am not religious about format as some others are outside of my preference for smaller sized systems. I appreciate being able to gig with a modular system.
With that being said, I have pretty complicated feelings about Eurorack these days. It was my introduction to modular synthesis, and I do like it. It is a decent format that provides a great deal of functionality in a small format. As somebody living in a city were smaller row homes and apartments are standard living, this is appreciated. While some people have massive systems, it’s largest advantage is one of size. It is a modular system that one can fit complete systems in very small cases.
Overtime the format exploded in popularity because of it’s relatively low price, high functionality, and portability. The thing is with it’s expanding popularity, also came a flood of new manufacturers to the format. This has left me in a bit of a conundrum. With so many boutique manufacturers producing so many modules with varying degrees of functionality, it can lead to frustration. This frustration is not coming from lack of options, but one of too many.
There was a book not to long ago called the Paradox of Choice, it focused on how too many options often left people confused. For the longest time I did not quite understand really if the concept held water. After all choice is wonderful in most cases, and to few if they do not match your personal preferences can be frustrating.
However, during the last few years of Eurorack I began to understand the paradox. I get it completely get it now, and it is very true.
The reality is there are so many spins on oscillators, complex oscillators, filters, low pass gates, random, vca, envelopes, LFOs, chaos, etc from an ever growing list of manufacturers, it is pretty easy to get lost in it all.
There was one point where one could keep up with the new modules, and make a determination on whether the functionality was something one wanted. That is becoming much harder right now. While there are some that try to buy as many modules as possible with a Pokemon type obsession of “catching them all”, for those of us with limited budgets, or room, this is not a wise position.
While the paradox of choice creates a conundrum for those of us who have been around for some time, it also presents confusion for those who are very new. The were to get started question has become something in which there is no easy answer with Eurorack. A complex oscillator, low pass gate, and some modulation, sure, but which ones? In some ways this is where the smaller complete systems by Make Noise, EoWave, and Pittsburgh Modular help. With that being said, these focused systems often limit exposure to the wider universe.
For those of us who have experience there is a bit of a knee jerk reaction to stick with our favorite manufacturers, which are often well established. This is sometimes done without giving new ones a real shot. After all there is modules outside of intellijel, cwejman, and make noise, but these are the most desired manufacturers. Part of this is quality, but part of it is familiarity and the issues that arise from the paradox of choice. We seek what we know we faced with an array of choices.
As it stands my Eurorack system is neglected at the moment. I am still keeping it though, largely because things can change. The largest reason I am keeping it around is because most DIY eurorack modules just take a few hours to complete. Right now for DIY synthesizers Eurorack modules is all I personally have the bandwidth for, and I would like to refresh my soldering skills before diving into DIY serge format. There may be finally something that will break through my own conundrum of the paradox of choice and offer something very compelling in Eurorack. I have no clue what it will be at this moment though. In fact the solution may be at the end of my soldering iron after all.
Make Noise recently brought up a topic on a board that is critically important, but not often thought about when going forward with Eurorack Modular synthesizer systems. There is a popular site called Modular Grid that offers people the ability to plan out modular synthesizer systems. One of the things which the site does not do a good job of incorporating though is the power consumption for modules or cases. The problem that has crept up for Make Noise is people returning modules when that break when they have blown past the capacity of their power supply. They may plan a very elaborate system, but not have the sufficient power for the system itself. This is not a hard issue to run into, and there are reasons for it.
I am making this a very specific post because while I like to promote modular synths, they are something that does take a little special consideration. Some modules are very power hungry and it is easy to blow past the power consumption limits of ones modular power supply. The Metasonix modules for example are famous for using vacuum tubes, which are extremely power hungry. They were such an exception that Monorocket made special cases with significantly more resources for the power supply. In addition to the tube driven modules, there are also the modules that use modern digital processors. While these are not as power hungry as Metasonix modules, they do require more power than older analog modules. Enough of these more sophisticated modules, and you begin to run into problems.
The problem for Eurorack is sourced at it’s own history. When Eurorack started with Doepfer in the 1990s through the early 2000s, many of the cases were designed for modules which had a much lower power footprint. As Eurorack has changed over the years, the power consumption for more cutting edge modules forced the necessity for higher power ceilings as a result of higher consumption. I will be honest, the newer modules with sophisticated functions and digital modules are what brought me into modular. The “Buchla-lite” nature of eurorack is one of it’s greatest advantages considering it’s lower price point.
While I purchased many used modules starting off, I actually bought a new case because of these issues with power consumption. Even as far back as three years ago the problems of the older cases and power supplies were creeping up. While the older cases are a great way to get started with the less expensive and lower consumption modules, when one begins to feel they will be moving on to the next level, the case is generally the first thing people should replace if one bought used. In addition when getting custom made cases, it is highly recommended that there is enough power in the power supply for modern modules. Especially when one gets into the more power hungry modules that use digital technology. It is one thing to go off of a low power consumption set up that uses mostly analog technology, it is another to be running a true modern modular hybrid system with the mostly recently produced modules. This is where getting a case with a power supply with a great deal of power headroom is very helpful. Plan for your future modules, but keep in mind, you may need more power than you are anticipating. Because going over the limits of your power supply can have some very real costs for your modules.
The entry point to modular synthesizers used to be significant. The price points used were high enough that those who could afford the synthesizers was a limited audience. Modular instruments were above all boutique instruments of enthusiasts and DIY builders. Do not get me wrong there is nothing wrong with this, many of these early enthusiasts were composers such as Laurie Spiegel, who used them extensively in her early recordings. For women it was a way to compose and produce music without the institutional barriers of the conservatory.
While the barriers to synthesizers in general fell, modular synthesizers were a different story. In recent years the price barrier have been falling, the introduction of the Eurorack format by Doepfer in 1995 started opening up these instruments to a far broader audience. In the last five years however the format exploded in popularity. The barrier to entry began to lower even more as a result as multiple manufacturers producing modules for the format.
In the last few days, Kilpatrick Audio, a Canadian company, announced the Phenol. While I will try to avoid endorsing products directly without trying them, the value of what they are offering is pretty impressive. It’s $850 retail price point (and I think that’s Canadian dollars) is lower than any comparable device . While the device is not a specific format, it does allow cross compatibility with other modular synths. The added bonus is that it uses banana jacks, which are easily one of the most fun formats because the wires are stackable. The one thing that will never disapear with modulars though is the differences in jack formats. However, unlike the Korg MS-20 mini, the Kilpatrick Phenol synthesizer uses the standard voltages found in modular synthesizers.
The $1000 price barrier is a bit mythical in the realm of musical instruments. It is the real difference between enthusiasts and professionals, and a larger general audience and hobbyists. While I can recommend several synthesizers to people, and I will on this blog, modular synthesizers which are close to my heart, tend to be out of reach to most people. It is hard to spend thousands of dollars on instruments with student loans, kids, and a mortgage. It is hard for teenagers to save up for modular instruments as well. The Phenol on the other hand could provide of an excellent entry point, one that can bring this type music technology into homes and schools. I can only imagine bringing something like the Phenol into a Girl’s Rock or Women’s Rock program.
While I am not going to make a final verdict on the Kilpatrick Phenol until I play it myself, the effort to make a high quality affordable modular instrument is commendable. While I will be reviewing and discussing instruments that are expensive, I am happy to start off this blog focusing on the announcement of a modular instrument that is accessible and more affordable.
When the Kickstarter opens up, I will be posting more about the Phenol.
Kilpatrick Phenol Specs:
Banana patch system with colour-coded jacks and voltages compatible with Kilpatrick Format and other modular systems
Two analog VCOs – triangle, ramp and pulse outputs
Two analog filters (low pass and high pass)
Two analog VCAs with level control
Two envelope generator / LFO combos with many unique features
An LFO with sine and random output
Internal MIDI to CV converter with DIN and USB MIDI interfaces
Compact mixer with digital delay with over 330ms of delay time
Digital pulse divider – divide MIDI clock or LFO output to create 4 musical time divisions
Buffered mixer / mult / inverter with level control
External audio input allows a stereo input to be patched like an oscillator signal – process your drum machine or other source through the system
Designed and made in Canada using high quality parts