Alien Force artwork breakdown

The secret project I’ve been hinting at since late 2017 was a sci-fi album cover for the trance musician Alien Force. It was completed back in November last year and has been waiting for a distribution slot since… until now!

Back in October 2017, Alien Force told me to make an album cover for him on the basis that I knew how to use 3D software. It would be unpaid work, but I took it anyway because it was something that would take me well out of my comfort zone. I appreciated that he asked me to produce something without seeing anything like a portfolio.

The brief was to capture something of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar but “menacing and awesome” too. After a month of back and forth outside of the day job, we settled on this:

Whoosh!

After slogging through one too many full 3D re-renders, I learnt the value of being able to iterate as rapidly and painlessly as possible. I broke the scene up into layers which would only come together at composite time. Each element (the background star field with nebula, the swirly orange clouds, the black hole and the spaceship with its jets) was rendered separately as multilayer OpenEXR and composited together.

The background nebula and stars are done procedurally, pretty much as Aidy Burrows and Gleb Alexandrov teach it in their excellent Space VFX Elements course for Blender. The swirly orange bits are from failing to make Gleb’s accretion disk shader to work but getting something usable anyway. If any of this stuff interests you at all, check out that course!

Don’t get too close!

The blown-out glow of the black hole was one of the key bits of Interstellar’s look which Alien Force wanted to keep. I used a super bright emission shader, Blur, Sun Beams and Glow filter to blow the glow out from a line a couple of pixels wide to something which better sells how bright it is.

Spaceship! The pink bits are sharp marks, the nicer way to get sharp edges while doing subdivision modelling.The grey texture map is used for displacement.

The spaceship is a relatively simple model which uses the “Follow Active Quads” UV unwrapping trick along with some 32-bit textures to greeble it up. This technique was the centre of a five year old thread on BlenderArtists called “Sculpting with UVs and displacements”. Definitely worth checking out if you ever need to build a detailed-looking spaceship quick!

Spaceship! With UV-mapped greebles…

The subtle outer glow of the spaceship was added in composite, something to make the silhouette pop against the nebula and stars. The green glow within the silhouette of the ship was a happy accident – I rendered out every single pass for the spaceship and stumbled on a mysterious pass called “DenoisingNormalVariance”. It made the end result look cooler, so that’s good enough for me.

The composite was put through Troy Sobotka’s awesome filmic LUTs. This let me work confidently with a high dynamic ranges, knowing that the LUTs would bring out the missing dynamic range instead of clipping it or losing it altogether.

Default LUT in top left, filmic LUT at lower right.

Here’s a comparison between Blender’s default internal look and Filmic to finish off with. The biggest difference is visible in the spaceship. With the default LUT, the exhaust is blown out and the contrast on the ship itself is less. The Filmic LUT preserves more detail in the exhaust and brings out extra contrast in the surface details on the ship itself.

If you want to hear the Alien Force EP itself, you can have a listen on Beatport. It looks like in the process of slapping the logo on the black hole they also cranked up the saturation hard, but that’s showbiz. 🙂

Thanks for reading and I hope you liked this breakdown.

What I did in 2017

2017 was a rough year for me and seemingly a lot of other people. Here’s a recap of what I got up to.

Back in April I made RYGCBMK◯, a project which was weirdly central to a lot of what I got up to this year. Here it is if you want a refresher.

I’d wanted to try an abstract short set to music since I went to the Melbourne International Animation Festival in 2015. RYGCBMK◯ was my driver to learn procedural animation with Jacques Lucke’s powerful Animation Nodes system for Blender. I specifically wanted to synchronise abstract animation to a rhythm because I love that kind of synaesthetic stuff and I knew it would keep me going through an emotionally brutal bit of the year.

The end result was not perfect, but I got a high enough average score during the voting process for the Suzanne Awards 2017 to encourage me to try some more in the future. The important part was that there was an end result to speak of. It got done.

And it got done.. with nodes!

Working on RYGCBMK◯ also helped me tune into my artistic sensibilities. Given just shapes and sound to play with, the project took me away from complicated stuff like characters and dialogue to something which let me get a strong feel for the kind of work I want to put into the world.

I made important if not voluminous progress with “A moment in the sun” in its third year of development. I put together a new story reel in January and February, and a short stretch of that is good to go as is even with the big rewrite in May. Flipping Pointy from irascible and foolish to geeking-out cute was a decision that very much happened in the wake of RYGCBMK◯ too.

There was that secret project I can’t show off yet which happened in October-November. Here’s a concept which we abandoned.

The one we actually went with is way cooler.

I learnt Retopoflow this year as well – anyone doing modelling in Blender should grab it. Hard Ops is next on my list of useful plugins to get to grips with.

There was of course AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA which started strong but fizzled. AMITS now has a sweet cockatoo. Here’s AAAAAAAAAAA’s final resting point.

And then there was my first run at Inktober. I started practising with my brush pen and now my inking’s gone from “rubbish” to “slightly-less-rubbish”. This snail got the most likes on Instagram.

#inktober #inktober2017 22. Trail. A snail leaves a trail without fail!

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There wasn’t that much time for art or animation though. RYGCBMK◯’s soundtrack was part of a big jump back into music for me, something I did because I wanted a creative outlet but job stress was (temporarily) making the animation hobby unthinkable. Then it took over.

Just over eleven months after I impulse-bought that ARP Odyssey back in January as a shiny new toy to keep myself distracted, I’m now the owner of a 475HP Eurorack modular synthesiser which I mostly soldered together myself. I don’t need to look at a computer screen to make electronic music anymore (though the PC does come in very handy for recording) and the sound is even produced by old-school electronic components instead of simulated versions thereof. In playing around with it I’ve learnt a lot about how to patch and which modules are for what, but no doubt I’ve only just scratched the surface of what this thing can do.

To me DASYRAC looks sad and naked and unfulfilled without patch cables, but at least this way you can see the actual modules.

This krautrocky jam from early December is one of my favourite tracks I did this year.

I didn’t even know how to solder before I started putting DASYRAC together, but I noticed the kit builds were a lot cheaper so I gave it a try. Now I’m actually happier owning synthesiser modules which I put together myself than modules I bought pre-made, because I’m comfortable fixing my own work when it breaks. Most times when I sit down to prod a busted circuit with a multimeter and pore over a circuit schematic, I learn something new and interesting.

This is the schematic for Music Thing Modular’s Simple EQ with my troubleshooting notes. Looks like I forgot to solder one of the pins on an op amp.

So that’s what I learnt and did in 2017. (Mostly synthesiser stuff, to be honest.) This is what I’m taking away from all that for 2018 and beyond.

In terms of the modular synthesiser and music stuff, the build is almost complete. Once that’s done it’s all about learning my gear better and maybe getting some tunes released on Bandcamp. There’s one or two easy modules I want to have a crack at building for myself too, but that’ll need a little bit of extra equipment – it can wait.

A pyramid monk from AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.

In terms of Blender stuff, I want to jump into some short, focussed and contained exercises – animation, modelling, or otherwise. If it’s animation, I source the soundtrack and character rigs from somewhere else. If it’s modelling, I source a design from somewhere else. I go with pre-made assets wherever possible. The key is not giving myself too broad a set of creative decisions to make at once so that I don’t get lost.

By pushing beyond my own creative sphere and not trying to do all the things, it’ll save me time, help me focus on specific tasks, broader my artistic horizons, get me analysing work by other people and build up my confidence and patience again with some experience. With less to do, I can hopefully finish more stuff and get it in front of people to start that all-important feedback loop.

Meanwhile, in the Sun…

As for Gronky and Pointy, I feel like I’ve lived with AMITS long enough that there’s no big surprises left – just a lot to execute on. If I can stay organised and find a good chunk of time every week to work on it (five hours a week minimum is a good pace), it’ll get done. It’ll probably be not the best, but at least it’ll be finished.

The day job may have other things to say about all of this, especially if I score the promotion I’ve been working towards and people keep departing, but we’ll see.

Happy New Year for 2018, and I hope the coming year treats you all well!

December 2017 in retrospect

Seasons Greetings! Although we are still a whole day and a bit away from the end of December, here’s a recap of what I’ve been up to this month.

A moment in the sun!

I last worked on our old friends Pointy and Gronky properly back in May. At the time I felt like I left the story in the best possible place. Pointy’s now a happy little nerd with a laser fixation instead of a simmering angry idiot who wants to get home. Gronky is still a big guy who buries things in the desert.

I’ve started looking for ways to bring the pace of the story up and creatively solve some limitations. So now Gronky digs things out of the ground lightning fast. We never see him do this directly, however – it’s always off-screen. He also buries things glacially slow, just for contrast. This helpfully marks the passing of time as Pointy interrogates the robot.

The line-up, as seen previously..

Speaking of Pointy, I’m revisiting his character design so it fits his new bubbly personality better. On the very first day of December, I rendered Gronky and Pointy together with the bird from AAAAAAAAAAAAAA out of curiosity. Two soft round characters next to an angular character made me realise how Pointy’s sharp edges didn’t feel right anymore. He’s still ultimately a 2D design in a 3D world, but now the spiky sharp angular edges are friendlier-looking flowing curves.

Choosing a design and realising it in 3D is January’s problem.

Other animated things

Other ideas included robot creatures who make weird and fun noises into a microphone while doing strange things. I’ve collected enough strange and delightful noises from the analogue synth which suggest whimsical robots. The working title is “Noisies”. Here’s a slightly hyperactive animation test in Blender Grease Pencil featuring a roboty thing who is definitely not Gir from Invader Zim beatboxing to the introduction of “One Note Samba” by Perrey and Kingsley.

I don’t think the timing is right to start on it yet, but it could be a fun little project one day.

Electronics and music

I expanded DASYRAC by quite a few modules this month, with three pre-mades and five kit builds! (It would have been six kit builds but no such luck.) The last couple of modules are waiting on parts or availability.

  • Music Thing Modular’s Spring Reverb mk 2 (kit). This was a replacement for my Doepfer spring reverb. It’s got a cleaner sound and has more features.
  • Doepfer A-124 VCF5 Wasp Filter Special Edition. The Wasp has a cult following, partly for being cheap and partly for sounding more like an intergalactic shortwave radio than a filter at high resonance.
  • Polaxis Talko (kit). Talko uses old-school linear prediction coding (remember the Speak’N’Spell from “E.T.”?) to say preset numbers and words.. or for robotic burbles and growls.
  • Fonitronik Cascade (kit). A cascading attenuverter for sourcing, attenuating, inverting and offsetting voltages.
  • Befaco A*B+C (kit). A dual quadrature VCA for attenuverting and offsetting signals under voltage control. This is my second one of these!
  • Bastl Instruments Tromsø (kit). This is a triangle oscillator which feeds into a comparator which in turn feeds into a sample and hold circuit, good for analogue “ratecrushing” to add some (fake) lo-fi digital grit over hi-fi sounds.
  • Doepfer A-152 Addressed Track and Hold/Switch. This is a combination of an eight-way switch, an eight-way track and hold and an eight-stage trigger out. Uses I’ve already found for this include a pitch CV distributor and something that allows “hocketing” (switching between oscillators from note to note).

  • Doepfer A-110-6 TTZQ VCLFO. The A-110-6 is a through-zero trapezoid-core oscillator. Normal oscillators stop oscillating when their oscillation voltage drops to 0 or below, but a through-zero oscillator treats a negative oscillation voltage as a mirror of a positive oscillation voltage – a negative voltage just means “oscillate in reverse”. You can use this to create otherwise unachievable frequency modulation sounds. Here it is in action.

through zero oscillators in a nutshell

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I’m at a point now with the modular synth where I’m recreating particular synthesiser topologies or experimenting with techniques as learning and familiarisation exercises instead of adding more stuff to what I have. With a modular synthesiser it’s hard to know precisely what I’ve got, because different modules connect to one another in different ways.

I still want to try to build my own simple modules to fill a couple of gaps. I wouldn’t hate to have another buffered mult or a window comparator, for instance, and both of those things are relatively easy to put together from op amps.

I impulse-bought a theremin kit at the local electronics store. It was a bit disappointing. People go on about how cool theremins are but I find them forbiddingly fiddly and I much prefer the sound of the ondes Martenot.

That’s all for now! Thanks for catching up. 🙂

Modules 36, 45 and 53 – Music Thing Modular Turing Machine Mk II with Pulses and Voltages expanders

  • What kind of thing is it? The Turing Machine is a clock-driven stepped random voltage and trigger generator. Clock-driven means you have to hit it with a pip of voltage to make it do something, and stepped means that the voltage output switches instantly from one voltage to the next instead of transitioning gradually. You can also set the randomness to zero and use the write switch to turn it into a binary step sequencer. The Pulses expander is a cascading trigger source which uses the Turing Machine’s voltages to send out triggers, and the Voltages expander uses that same set of voltages to create a stepped random voltage output which is truly analogue instead of quantised to eight bits like the Turing Machine’s main out. There’s also a random noise generator which is always going.

voltages is voltages! love them little blinky slider pots 🙂 #Eurorack #diy

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  • How is it useful? Random voltages can be used as the basis for the pitches of notes, a non-repeating modulation source, etc. The randomness can be controlled either by using the big friendly dial and by a control voltage. If you feed it an audio-rate clock source like a pulsewave from an oscillator, it can act as a randomising waveshaper, or you can use it as a graphic oscillator with the Voltages expander. Random triggers meanwhile can be used to set off drums or other instruments. It also looks very impressive with all its blinky lights.
  • How does it work? Inside the Turing Machine is a shift register. A register’s job is to accept and maintain values (in this case, ons and offs), and a shift register can shift those values when commanded, kind of like they’re on a conveyor belt. Every time the module is triggered, the values all move along one spot BUT there’s a certain probability (set by dial or CV) that the outermost value of the register could change from on to off (or from off to on). The Turing Machine’s shift register’s state then feeds into a digital-to-analogue converter where it’s turned into an 8-bit voltage, and out it comes.

a short informational video on what the Turing Machine's blinky lights actually mean

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So is it analogue or digital? Both. The Turing Machine is analogue in the sense that it doesn’t have a fixed sample rate, but digital in the sense that its workings are driven by discrete values (on/off) and the output is an 8-bit voltage (one of 256 possibilities). If by “digital” you mean “it has a CPU”, it’s analogue. But if by “analogue” you mean “it doesn’t contain a DAC and the output voltage isn’t stepped in any way”, it’s digital. The Voltages expander sends each step through a slide potentiometer which makes it a bit more analogue than the main Turing Machine module.

  • Whose YouTube demo convinced you to buy it? Mylar Melodies made a strong case, but Divkid’s demo sold me when he ran it at audio rate at around 22:25 – that was my breaking point. 🙂

  • Does it work well? For sure. Being able to control randomness with CV is super good fun when the module is clocked at audio rates, although if it doesn’t have a 50% duty cycle at high audio rates it sometimes doesn’t clock properly. It’s possible to switch the randomness off entirely and use it as a binary sequencer with careful use of the write switch. The Turing Machine’s Noise output is handy but needs amplifying to be useful.
  • Are you still using it? Absolutely. The Turing Machine is one of those go-to modules that epitomises Eurorack’s cool factor for me – it has blinky lights and does many useful things with tech that’s been around for ages (in this case, 4000-series CMOS chips). Not for nothing does it show up in so many racks.
  • It’s a kit – how easy was it to build? The main module was easy, although this was the 23rd Eurorack module kit I’d built and that includes far more complicated builds like the Befaco Rampage and the Hexinverter Mutant Clap. The Pulses Mk II expander has SMD components which I’m still getting used to working with, so that was the more memorably difficult build! And the Voltages Mk II was easy-peasy, as promised.
  • Surprises/disappointments? I researched this one pretty well so there hasn’t been anything too surprising or disappointing aside from the quiet noise out.
  • Who makes it (and where?): Music Thing Modular, kits sold by Thonk out of the United Kingdom.
  • Stats: Turing Maching Mk II is 10HP, Pulses Mk II is 4HP, Voltages Mk II is 12HP again.

ModularGrid: Turing Machine, Pulses, Voltages (all Mk II)

Module 4 – Erica Synths Pico INPUT

  • What kind of thing is it? It’s an amplifier that takes two mono signals or one stereo signal and amplifies them from line level (1.23Vpp) up to modular level (~5Vpp).
  • How is it useful? It lets me bring audio signals in from normal gear to use in the modular. With this, I can run the Odyssey’s audio out or a guitar pedal into DASYRAC at the right volume. It’s also great for raising the volume of native modular signals which are too damn quiet, and thankfully there’s volume knobs to control the amount of gain.
  • How does it work? It’s an amplifier so it’s got amplifying circuitry in it, the stereo routing is (probably) done with switched jacks, and I’m not experienced enough to guess the rest 🙂
  • Does it work well? Yes. It’ll take a stereo signal at the top and break out the left and right to the two outputs, or it can take two mono signals too. There’s a green LED for when the signal is the right volume and if the signal gets too loud there’s a red LED to warn you of clipping. It all comes in a petit 3HP package like the rest of Erica’s Pico module range.
  • Are you still using it? Now that I’ve got a Drumbrute with individual outs for each drum channel I can see myself making much more use of it.
  • Surprises/disappointments? The automatic stereo splitting was a very nice surprise – no need for a Y cable! Hooray! The harsh clipping is a bit disappointing though.
  • Who makes it (and where?): Erica Synths of Latvia.
  • Stats: 3HP.

Modulargrid.

November 2017 happenings

Greetings, interweb. Here’s what I got up to in November 2017, starting with…

A secret project!

Can’t say much about this yet. It was a freebie album cover which I took on for the experience and to stretch my abilities beyond my comfort zone. I relied heavily on a certain Space VFX series and a classic thread on BlenderArtists for inspiration and techniques.

Once the associated project is out, I’ll show it off. 🙂

Animation and other Blendery stuff

The speedy green antics of AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA have been shelved for the foreseeable future. My heart’s not in it, but at least it yielded a great little cockatoo rig who also fits into the visual style of AMITS. Maybe he can hang out with Gronky and Pointy…

Does the cockatoo need big thick eyebrows as well? Answers in the comments.

Speaking of those two, I patched a nice zappy electricity arc sound for the robot in AMITS. This is a random five second excerpt from that session. (Warning: loud.)

Electronics and other beepbooping

Through the magic of soldering, I’ve added distortion, another audio mixer and another sequencer to DASYRAC’s arsenal of goodies. Here’s the distortion, featuring its quirky LED limiter section.

at least I got the Optodist finished. look at those little green blinkers go!

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I also bought a drum machine because I got tired of patching together basic drum sounds every time I want a beat. I’ve started looking into Arduino to see what I can do to trigger it from the patchbay instead of needing to rely on MIDI.

I started doing write-ups on all the modules in DASYRAC too. There’s about fifty of them so I’ll still be doing write-ups a year from now if I can’t get through more than one per week.

That’s all for November. See you again soon!

Patch of the day – Happy little polymeters

Time for a new patch! This one is all about skippy electronic space bubbles.

 

The melody is a conversation between orderly euclidean rhythms (courtesy of my shiny new 2hp Euclid) and the chaotic randomised voltages from the ever-dependable Music Thing Modular Turing Machine. The random note pitches come out of the Turing Machine, and the basic shuffle rhythm comes from the Euclid, but the Turing Machine’s Pulses expander also throws in an extra pip from time to time which adds splashes of interest. Lovely.

The reverse delay is some sort of magic achieved by the Synthesis Technology E560 Deflector Shield patched into the feedback line of the Befaco Crush Delay. There’s this one knob on the Deflector Shield I normally leave at zero, and here it’s at five-ish. I don’t know what it’s doing exactly but it sounds quite nice.

Add slatherings of spring reverb to taste.

Modules 5 and 16 – WORNG Electronics 3x3x3 Passive Mult

  • What kind of thing is it? A passive multiple. A mult lets you send whatever signal is travelling down a cable to multiple different destinations. Using a passive mult, the signal weakens the more places you send it to but for on-off signals like triggers and clocks, that doesn’t matter so much.
  • How is it useful? You can send one signal up to six new places, three signals out to two new places each, and with two signals you can send one to four other places and one to two other places. Here are some pictures with captions.

The 3x3x3’s input jacks all have a gold ring around them. Here it is fully connected. Yellow’s signal is going out to the pinks; green’s signal is going out to the whites and blue’s signal is going out to the reds.

Now we only have two inputs. Yellow’s signal still goes out through the pinks. Green’s signal goes out through the whites, and since there’s nothing plugged in under the whites it goes out through the reds too.

Yellow’s signal is still going out through the pinks, but since nothing is plugged in under pink, the white cables also carry yellow’s signal. The blue cable’s signal is carried down the red cables.

With no other input voltages, the yellow cable’s voltage (at the top) is being sent out to pink, yellow and red all at once.

  • How does it work? By joining switching audio jacks together on a circuitboard. Seriously, that’s all there is to it. They don’t come much simpler.
  • Does it work well? Definitely. This was the first module I ever got two of, even.
  • Are you still using it? I’ve replaced one of these with some Befaco six-way mults which live in the cable spaghetti. The other one is still racked up for now until I get some more six-way mults.
  • It’s a kit – how easy was it to build? It’s inexpensive to buy, safe and simple to build as an early DIY project and very useful – an ideal first DIY Eurorack module, I think! The only build problem I had was attaching the panel upside-down but that was easily rectified. 🙂
  • Surprises/disappointments? It works even better de-racked and living in cable-space!

The white cable is carrying a repeating falling voltage used to make a kick drum. Sent through the mult, the pink leads use the same signal to make the oscillator go PEW and also reset its sync to avoid clcks on some triggers and not on others because of interactions between the oscillator’s phase and the amplifier’s envelope. Without the mult, I’d need two separate envelope generators. Bargain!

  • Who made it (and where)? WORNG Electronics (Australia)
  • Stats: 3HP, passive (no power requirements)

Modulargrid.

The DASYRAC approach

Eurorack is very easy to blow the bank on. Not for nothing do people call it Euro-crack. There are hundreds of different modules which do all kinds of different things and it’s very easy to run around like a kid in a candy shop buying anything with pretty blinky lights that makes a vaguely cool sound.

I knew this going in and I wanted to be smarter.

It helps to focus on achieving a particular goal. In my case, I wanted a voltage controlled, chaos-infused mad science lab – something that has minimal overlap with the tech already on my computer. I came up with the following guidelines to help me stay the course.

Analogue signal path wherever possible

Why? I’ve got loads of digital sounds on my computer already. No need to add even more! Analogue gear behaves in more interesting unpredictable ways than digital when pushed and digitisation can add nasty artefacts.

But… pure analogue circuitry can be annoyingly unstable, imprecise and generally fiddly, even when it’s well-behaved and recently built. Re-patching a sound perfectly is nigh-on impossible.

And so I’ve got sample playback (Radio Music and Disting Mk 4), digital delays (Chronoblob, Crush Delay – the Crush is very lo-fi though) and a digital processor (Clouds). The Disting has a nice high sample rate which helps things.

Digital timing for precision, analogue handling for fidelity

Why? DASYRAC needs to be able to hold a tempo for multitrack recording, and digital clocking is steadier. Analogue is generally still better for audio-rate modulation – the sample rate of digital can easily misinterpret or distort rapid signal changes that analogue circuitry deals with perfectly capably.

Surface controls only, preferably with CV

Why? Automation is cool, menu diving without a mouse sucks and multi-functional knobs are too much effort to remember.

But… menus can hide complexity & reduce the module size, leaving room for more modules.

And so… I have the Tuesday procedural sequencer Tuesday, the multifunction Disting mk 4, the clock manipulator Little Nerd, and the texture synthesiser Clouds whose clunky UI so annoyed its inventor that he discontinued it. All of these CPU-based modules require some menu-diving and/or have modes and other stuff. As long as they’re useful and limited in number, they’re fine.

Decoupled from the PC and MIDI-based control

Why? I’ve looked at a screen to make music for 25 years and I’m utterly bored with it. Also being able to separate gate from pitch is awesome. You can’t really do that with MIDI unless the individual instrument lets you. It’s absolutely possible to inject MIDI and computer-controlled CV into Eurorack – I just don’t want to.

And yet… recording and mix is all digital because using analogue recording media as well is pointlessly limiting when it comes time to compile something.

Ephemerality over reproducibility (no presets!)

Why? I am tired of preset surfing and I’m not on anyone’s clock.

But… patching manually is slower, even when you know exactly what you want. Either I record that cool sound or lose it forever, and disk space is ultimately still finite.

And so… Tuesday has hard-coded scale presets, Disting mk 4 has some presets in there too, and Little Nerd can be preset but I don’t use it like that.

Keep single module spend less than A$250 where possible and don’t spend more than A$500 on a single instrument

Why? Eurorack is cumulatively expensive enough as is, let alone high-end Eurorack. Second hand modules are fine too.

But.. in keeping my module selection low cost, I miss out on some very shiny stuff. Really shiny.

And so… The Tuesday, the Make Noise 0-Coast and Korg ARP Odyssey were all north of half a grand. Clouds, Chronoblob, Fluctuations Magnetiques and Deflector Shield were all more than $250 each. None of the DIY modules have been more than $250, though some have come pretty close. 🙂

DIY if it’s feasible, cheaper and equal quality

Why? It’s cheaper – the cost of assembly is a big chunk of the sticker price! It’s doable if not always simple. I get to learn about electronics. Also, soldering on my back patio is a lovely way to pass the time.

But… DIY needs equipment and if a DIY module breaks, I have to fix it myself.

The one time I bailed was.. Clouds! It’s possible to get DIY kits because Clouds is open-source hardware, but it involves a lot of surface mount component soldering. I do not like surface mount component soldering.

Modular components over contained black boxes

Why? Black boxes with no control points are just less fun. If something is part of a system, I prefer it to allow that system to alter what it does instead of just doing its job.. because you never know what you might get it to do. If there’s just an in and an out, well, it had better do something pretty awesome…

But.. black boxes mean less of your system is tied up and you can do more cool stuff at once. It’s a trade-off.

And so.. The Little Nerd doesn’t accept anything except for a clock, but it does cool enough stuff with that clock that it’s OK. The 106 Chorus only has an in and an out but it sounds fab. And the Ladik Waveform Animator.. well.. it’s 4HP of black box yumminess.

Multi-function over single function

Why? A versatile module means you can do more with your system. I’ve noticed that the analogue modules tend to be more versatile in what they can be used for while the digital modules seem to be designed with a specific purpose in mind. A function generator like the Befaco Rampage can do so many things that it beggars belief, which is why it and its better known cousin Maths are in nearly every Eurorack setup there is.

But.. a really versatile module has more chance of being used early in a patch, which means choosing which of its many tricks it will perform for you. The Disting mk 4 has almost 70 different modes, for instance, but I only have one of them so I can only have it do one of those seventy things at once. Maybe I should get another one…

And yet… I don’t mind the odd one-trick pony like the Feedback 106 Chorus or the Ladik Waveform Animator in my rack because they do their job so nicely.

Unpredictable/chaos-guided systems over explicit/periodic instructions

Why? It’s more interesting to build a patch which shape chaos in interesting ways than building up intentional order from nothing. It’s also way quicker to carve away the notes you don’t want with a quantiser than program in the exact sequence of notes you do want. Just saying.

But.. building a nice chaos-taming patch requires more experimentation than plugging notes into a sequencer.

Monophonic over polyphonic

Why? Polyphony means doing more than one thing at once, and that cost more money than just having one thing going at once then multitracking it. Also, years of listening to chiptunes has taught me pretty much every trick in the book when it comes to getting bang for buck out of a single oscillator. And there’s always the option of smearing arpeggios into a drone with a bit of delay or spring reverb.

But.. it makes performing complicated things live much harder. Not that I do live stuff on my rack. It also means a lot more patching.

And so… multitracking isn’t the only answer to this. I can also use samples from DASYRAC itself courtesy of the Radio Music or the Disting Mk 4, both of which have sample playback.

DASYRAC – the whole story!

Note: This article will be updated with new information and links over time.

DASYRAC (Digital/Audio System Yielding Retro Auditory Coolness) is my voltage-controlled audio mad science lab, containing sixty or so Eurorack synthesiser modules. I started putting it together in early 2017 partly as a 40th birthday present to myself and partly as a practical introduction to electronics. Once I figured out what I wanted from a modular synthesiser setup and how to solder, there was very little to stop me. 🙂

The Eurorack bit

Jargon-busting: Eurorack modules have a standardised height of 3U – that’s  133.5mm to the rest of us. The widths of the modules is measured in horizontal pitch (HP for short). 1HP is equal to 5.08mm. My smallest module is all of 2HP and my widest one is 22HP.

DASYRAC is housed in a 9U (= three rail) 104HP Synthrotek Cheeks Of Steel open rack, a 104HP Tiptop Z-Ears + Z-Rails rack and an 84HP Tiptop Happy Ending kit rack for a total of 500HP. The modules are powered by one Tiptop uZeus power supply and two 4ms Row Power 30 supplies. The modules connect into shrouded IDC power connectors at the back; the Row Power 30s are daisychained to run off a single 90W laptop power supply, and the uZeus runs off a 2A power pack.

The actual Eurorack modules

Each module is listed with a “rack-up” date. All the dates are for 2017.

The majority of DASYRAC’s modules were built from DIY kits as sold by stores like Thonk (UK), Befaco (Spain), Noise Kitchen (Czechia) or by individual vendors like Sonic Potions (Germany) and WORNG Electronics (Australia). All the kits were supplied with all the necessary through-hole components unless otherwise stated.

Over time I want to build up a commentary about what each module does and how it does it, why I wanted it in the first place, what surprised/disappointed me, whether it actually does the job, sound demos, etc. Since that’ll take a while, the [modulargrid] link will take you through to the module’s entry on Modulargrid where you can read about it while I get my act together.

  1. Doepfer A-138a linear mixer (27 March – 16 November) [modulargrid]
  2. CFM Bipolar Half-Wave Rectifier (kit, 27 March – 6 October?) [modulargrid]
  3. Tiptop uZeus power supply (27 March – 6 October?) [modulargrid]
  4. Erica Synths Pico Input dual amplifier (30 March) [modulargrid]
  5. WORNG Electronics 3x3x3 Passive Mult #1 (kit, 5 April – 16 November) [modulargrid]
  6. Thonk AT-AT-AT triple attenuator (kit, 11 April – 16 November) [modulargrid]
  7. Befaco A*B+C dual quadrature VCA (kit, 15 April) [modulargrid]
  8. Doepfer A-199 SPRV Spring Reverb (18 April) [modulargrid]
  9. Doepfer A-106-6 Xpander VCF (18 April) [modulargrid]
  10. Doepfer A-151 Sequential Switch (18 April) [modulargrid]
  11. Mutable Instruments Links buffered multiple & mixer (24 April) [modulargrid]
  12. Befaco VC Slew Limiter (kit, 29 April?) [modulargrid]
  13. Befaco Rampage dual function generator (kit, 30 April) [modulargrid]
  14. T.I.N.R.S. Tuesday procedural sequencer (8 May) [modulargrid]
  15. 4ms Row Power 30 power supply #1 (22 May) [modulargrid]
  16. WORNG Electronics 3x3x3 Passive Mult #2 (kit, 26 May) [modulargrid]
  17. Bastl Instruments Noise Square waveform generator (kit, 26 May) [modulargrid]
  18. Bastl Instruments Skis dual decay/VCA (kit, 28 May) [modulargrid]
  19. Vintage Synth Lab VCF-74 low pass filter (30 May) [modulargrid]
  20. Befaco Sampling Modulator sample and hold (kit, 10 June) [modulargrid]
  21. Sonic Potions Penrose pitch quantiser (kit, 15 June) [modulargrid]
  22. Doepfer A-185-2 Precision Adder voltage summer (15 June) [modulargrid]
  23. Sonic Potions Mal-2 source of chaos (kit, 16 June) [modulargrid]
  24. Doepfer A-110-4 QZVCO Quadrature Through Zero VCO (21 June) [modulargrid]
  25. Befaco EvenVCO (kit, 24 June) [modulargrid]
  26. Befaco Crush Delay (kit, 25 June) [modulargrid]
  27. Befaco Chopping Kinky dual wavefolder (kit, 25 June) [modulargrid]
  28. Befaco Joystick (kit, 2 July – 21 August, re-rack 18 November) [modulargrid]
  29. Befaco Dual Attenuverter (kit, 7 July) [modulargrid]
  30. Bastl Instruments ABC mixer (kit, 7 July) [modulargrid]
  31. Hexinverter Galilean Moons dual EG/VCA (kit, 14 July) [modulargrid]
  32. Hexinverter Mutant Clap (partial kit, 21 July) [modulargrid]
  33. WORNG Electronics LRMSMSLR stereo/mid-side processor (pcb/panel, 1 August) [modulargrid]
  34. RYO Aperture LPG low pass gate/VCA (kit, 1 August) [modulargrid]
  35. Music Thing Modular Radio Music sample player (kit, 1 August) [modulargrid]
  36. Music Thing Modular Turing Machine mk II stepped random voltage source (kit, 2 August) [modulargrid]
  37. Music Thing Modular Simple EQ (SMD kit, 3 August) [modulargrid]
  38. Ladik L-010 Waveform Animator (7 August) [modulargrid]
  39. Synthesis Technology E560 Deflector Shield frequency shifter/phaser (17 August) [modulargrid]
  40. Eowave Fluctuations Magnétiques quadruple VCF (21 August) [modulargrid]
  41. Expert Sleepers Disting mk 4 swiss army knife (1 September) [modulargrid]
  42. 4ms Row Power 30 power supply #2 (6 October) [modulargrid]
  43. Alright Devices Chronoblob digital delay (6 October) [modulargrid]
  44. Mutable Instruments Ears contact mic/amplifier (6 October) [modulargrid]
  45. Music Thing Modular Pulses mk II random trigger source (SMD kit, 13 October) [modulargrid]
  46. Transient Modules 8S Sequencer (kit, 14 October) [modulargrid]
  47. Bastl Instruments Little Nerd clock manipulator (kit, 14 October) [modulargrid]
  48. Mutant Instruments Clouds texture synthesiser (20 October) [modulargrid]
  49. Horstronic Arcade Button trigger/gate (kit, 6 November) [modulargrid]
  50. RYO VC Sequencer (kit, 7 November) [modulargrid]
  51. RYO TrigXpander trigger source (kit, 7 November) [modulargrid]
  52. 2hp Euclid euclidean rhythm generator (13 November) [modulargrid]
  53. Music Thing Modular Voltages mk II graphic random voltage source (kit, 27 November) [modulargrid]
  54. RYO Optodist overdrive (pcb/panel, 27 November) [modulargrid]
  55. Bastl Instruments ABC mixer #2 (kit, 28 November) [modulargrid]
  56. Music Thing Modular Spring Reverb mk II (kit, 4 December) [modulargrid]
  57. Doepfer A-124 Wasp VCF (4 December) [modulargrid]
  58. Polaxis Talko linear predictive coding speech synthesiser (kit, 5 December) [modulargrid]
  59. Fonitronik Cascade attenuverter/mixer (kit, 5 December) [modulargrid]
  60. Befaco A*B+C dual quadrature VCA #2 (kit, 6 December) [modulargrid]
  61. Bastl Instruments Tromsø VCO/comparator/hold (kit, 27 December) [modulargrid]
  62. Doepfer A-110-6 TTZQ VCLFO trapezoid core through-zero VCO (27 December) [modulargrid]
  63. Doepfer A-152 Addressed T&H/Switch (27 December) [modulargrid]

Pending

  • Feedback 106 Chorus (partial kit) [modulargrid]
  • Ornament and Crime digital swiss army knife (kit) [modulargrid]

Patch pals

Patch pals are mini-circuits which live out in “cable space”. They don’t need a power supply to do their job.

  • Befaco 6-Way Mults (23 June)
  • Mystic Circuits 0hp OR gate (kit, 26 October)
  • Mystic Circuits 0hp AND gate (kit, 26 October)
  • Mystic Circuits 0hp Vactrol VCA/LPG (kit, 26 October)
  • LMNTL 6-way mults (27 November)

External instruments

Most of these instruments talk to DASYRAC using voltage control and are where it all started, long ago in the ancient times of January 2017.

  • Korg ARP Odyssey synthesiser (23 January)
  • Korg SQ-1 sequencer (24 February)
  • Arturia Beatstep Pro uber-sequencer (3 March)
  • Arturia Keystep keyboard/sequencer (7 March)
  • Arturia Drumbrute drum machine (28 November)