Making stand alone modular instruments


Yeah I think the extra piece of gear and the extras to integrate it are what are holding me back from the Coco and making me think about how I might achieve something similar with other things. Maybe I’ll hold off again … And wonder for another few months.


I guess the similarities I am seeing is the ability to play into something and then modulate in an extreme way the repeats and/or loops with a reasonable amount of control. I have straight delays and loopers anyway. I’m thinking to build my own instrument with a some Mobenthey madness. I whipped up this but its not thought through yet…


I will do for sure! I got the little clouds built for me but I’ve just racked it last night. I had a factory Clouds until last week so my muscle memory is still tied to that. I will need to change my habits but it will take time. I think we’ll get along just fine :slight_smile:

P.S. that configuration will change because something else is coming to take those 18hp where Ears and the VCFQ are now (spoiler: it’s a teletype).


This is also relevant to the 7U Intellijel case thread, but I recently came across Nathan Moody’s work, in particular his Etudes I: Blue Box, and the modular instrument pictured on the front seems to fit in very well with the spirit of this discussion:

I usually don’t care for changing panels/knobs on modules, but his use of an aesthetic system with his knob choices makes a lot of sense to me in this case.


It’s a wonderful record!


Super cool. I’ve often thought of refacing my own case with 1 huge custom panel. I would love to try it some day.


I’ve just ordered a Grau 6u 51hp case, with the view of making a rig that can do droney and glitchy noise things. Here is my idea so far. I’d love to get a mult in there, but only have 1hp spare with this setup. I could swap the Quatro Figaro (10hp) out for a Tangle Quartet or something else 8hp, but I like the idea of having inverted mix outs… Any suggestions?


Easiest thing I can think of would be to swap the Doepfer sequential switch for the Erica Pico SEQS, which would get you an extra 1hp!

Also, don’t forget that you could always use channel 2 or 3 of Maths to invert a mix output from a smaller quad VCA if you wanted.


What can you do with inverted mix outs? Never experimented with that


ah, good ideas, thanks!

@dansimco - I’m mostly interested in the inverted outs as another timbre/flavour that I can send to an external mixer at a show, or into a computer for recording.


And if it’s a mixer that can handle CV, the inverted outs can be very useful for feedback loop type patches.


The Quattro Figaro is also great for stereo pairs. I often run an LFO or random in to get some stereo movement. The inverted CV is normalled to its “neighbor” (A+B, C+D), so it’s well set up for that sort of thing. I love mine. I think it’s worth the extra 2hp!


Nice! That’s what I was hoping it could handle that. Will keep an eye out for one of those, then :slight_smile:


please explain as my STG .MIX has inverted out, that I never really use.


what does the output look like for stereo? does the main A-B-C-D output in stereo?


There are individual outs for A, B, C & D, of course, so you could run those out to separate mixer/interface channels. Then there’s also A+C (Left) and B+D (Right) outs, if you just want a single stereo pair (both inverted). Then there’s a mono A+B+C+D out, and an inverted mono A+B+C+D out.


Sure. Here are a few things I like doing, usually as parts of a larger feedback loop. None of these are really groundbreaking or anything! But, they are things that I find an inverted output gives a different, sometimes better, flavour to.

My favourite thing is bending CV with itself. So feed the output of any CV generator (envelope for example) back into (one or more of) its CV input(s). As is usual with feedback patches, using a VCA (or even better a CV controllable attenuverter) in the CV path allows control over how much gets back into the input.

Inverted outputs are also useful for switching CV between different inputs etc. Basically making simple crossfader/switch type things with VCAs etc. Yes, easy enough to buy these pre-done but I like the flexibility of rolling my own at times.

Audio uses, rather than CV, include filter feedback (fun with pretty much any effect module though) with an inverted output being fed back into the input.

I like this article on neural synthesis by Jurgen Michaelis. Some ideas to take from it. I remember trying to patch something like it on my old 5U system years ago. I don’t think the results were that good from memory. Maybe something to revisit.


I’ve been following this post quite closely since it’s something that I am putting a lot of thought in, since some time. There’s actually two sides that interest me regarding this: on one hand I am digging deeper into the modular and am trying to find out how to best approach it in a different way than what I’ve done until now. The modular is a very personal instrument, there’s no predefined way to play or use it, you have to find your own (which is also why I find it so exciting). The other thing is of couse, that as a designer, I have both the urge to design my system, and I want to learn more about what other people do and why, which is an ongoing process, which will probably never stop (since it keeps evolving and mutating).

This post here is mostly a collage of thoughts which I have collected in the last months, put together into a somehow meaningful flow (I hope).

The modular can be many things. It can be a toolbox, it can be an interactive jukebox, it can be an ecosystem, and most of all, it can be an instrument.

The latter is what interests me most, though defining what an instrument is in the context of the modular is quite a challenging thing. I’m a bit split here about the whole definitions thing, but that’s probably another topic.

To get to the point, I’ve been asking myself this one question – how do you build a modular instrument? – repeatedly and here’s a couple of things that I think are relevant to this discussion.

If we assume that an instrument is a human-made device that enables the player to produce sounds that are organized and shaped according to artistic decisions of the player and that – in the case of an electronic instrument – these decisions can lead to actions which directly produce the sound, or shape it indirectly, (I know it’s a bit of a sloppy definition, but it serves my purpose in the context of this post) the question is: which decisions should I be able to translate into sound on it?

For me personally there’s the big initial questions:

  • Should it be playable in a gestural manner, or rather be focusing on attended self-playing?
  • On which material should it focus: synthesis or sampling/processing of concrete sounds?
  • Should the instrument be built around one monolytic process (we could call it a voice), or should it incorporate multiple ones.

The latter is a tricky one. Can we still call it an instrument if it’s an assemblage of multiple processes/voices? I mean a modular will always have some redundancy and it’s hard to define what a “voice” actually is. Having two oscillators does not mean you always use two voices in your system, they could all be part of one voice. But maybe if you have modules that are part of two very different synthesis methods (eg. noise/sample source + Rings and a more classic subtractive synthesis set of modules) it becomes more like two instruments in one.

Again, this is less about the definitions, but more about what I’d like a modular instrument to be, and that’s something very cohesive and with a strong identity, not just a collection of things.

Then there’s several practical matters:

  • How big/heavy can it be?
  • Ergonomic aspects: how do you play the instrument? Upright, or flat on a table/lap? What is your body posture in relation to the modular?
  • Should it be something you can carry around patched and ready to go?
  • Is the instrument more geared towards live play / jamming or recording?
  • Is it completely self-contained, or will it work in conjunction with external devices like sound processors (FX), controllers, etc?
  • Is it intendeded to work in a larger setup and interact with other instruments?

This of course leads to more technical questions like: what case should I use, does the one I have work, is the size ok, can I position it the way I want it? Is it too heavy? Choosing a case with a good PSU is also an important factor, especially if you want to record it.

My current case is a bit too deep and a bit too big and has the power switch in an unconvenient position. There’s also some problems with my currently available space in the studio. I like to keep the modular flat on a table, or better, slighly slanted so it’s easy to access everything. 6U seems to be ideal, since bigger cases force you to lean over more (not very ergonomic) and make it harder for me to focus. For this reason the case should be rather shallow. I really like the design of the Intellijel cases, also they are portable (proper lid to close them) and seem very sturdily designed. I have mixed feelings about the 1U row though, but apart from that, they seem the best available choice for what I’d like to do.

A special note goes to the Teletype (which will be in one of the instruments). The way it is made makes it work best in a case that you can put flat (or slightly slanted) on a table, this for two reasons: because you need to put the keyboard somewhere, and more importantly because this way the patch cables will be less likely to cover the screen. Also, the Teletype is best positioned on the first row. There’s maybe other modules that have some kind of special requirements.

I have a series of ideas for instruments, which mostly rely on a couple of central modules/musical processes. Actually the idea is to build the whole instrument around a handful of central modules that almost make one highly cohesive unity, with everything else branching out from there.

A first instrument would work in conjunction with a set of contact-mic-based contraptions and rely on a sampler/looper to act as a central hub for recording, looping, overdubbing and time/pitch based alterations of the external signals. From there the material would be further processed via delays, resonators, distortion/bitcrushing etc.

A second instrument would be focused on synthesis, attended self-playing and procedural generation of musical materials.

The two would be rather small (6U) and conceived to work together, or alone depending on the needs.

The tricky parts are:

  • there’s some redundancy in what I’d need to make both work, meaning that some modules would be really useful and interesting in both, but I’m not sure I’ll go and buy a second anything, just to add it to both cases.
  • It’s very tempting to add a row to the first one that incorporates various contact-mic-based things into one big panel. If the instrument does need some other instruments to work it immediately feels less like one.
  • I still don’t know how much direct, gestural control through dedicated control modules I really want, this is something I have to experiment more with (but that means buying modules just to try out things, which is not really my way of doing things). For now I’m having some big fun playing Rings with a bow through a contact-microphoned spring.

For now these are just in my mind, since I guess I’ll stick with my current case for some time, and the only place where I can put it is behind the computer (upright)… but I can’t stop designing things in my head :slight_smile:


Thanks for this. This post contains the kinds of thoughts I was having when I started the thread. Lots of other great stuff in here, so it’s nice to see it come sort of full circle.

In my continued thinking about this, one of the biggest hurdles has actually been cost of cases and power supplies, and the logistics of having many power supplies. I’ve ended up keeping all my gear in two cases for so long because it limits the power issues and costs.

That said, I’m in the middle of a big reconfiguration and shrinking of the system into something more like a couple instruments in a case.

This is also something I’ve had a hard time with. Of course you can always rearrange any time, and cross patch between cases.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to deal with Teletype i2c between cases to free up the restrictions on module placement without losing the option of i2c communication. Maybe some sort of 1U tile with a ribbon connector that connects two Teletype backpacks across cases?

This is a lovely idea and really nice way to think about how to unify things. I’ve been awfully temped to ditch the whole Eurorack world and just get a Bugbrand synth voice and a few other things… The conceptual simplicity is really nice.

@MengQiMusic came up earlier in the thread. He has a way of building small instruments that allow for amazing expressiveness and get away from the “studio in a box” mentality… something that has been really hard for me to do with my own work.


So note that the I feel like my definition of stand-alone instrument would be something like “a system that can create or alter audio in ways that are interesting, without necessarily relying on things outside of itself (but it could), and should aid in getting something interesting without causing creative fatigue”. This is extremely broad (and probably a little against a lot of the stuff in this thread), which is why I wanted to say it up front. Another thing I think what makes the system an instrument (or rather “good” at being an instrument or not) is pulling in these user experience points like you’re mentioning in your post, @papernoise. And I just want to point out that I feel like it can be a lot easier to try to explore and plan using these sort of aspects to define what I’m looking for, rather than focusing on the “sound”, because ultimately, I got into (and I think, generally, people get into) modular more often than not to try to explore and experiment with sound.

This is something I’ve been focused on recently. I put away my BSP and SQ-1 in the closet and have been focused on using the teletype exclusively for sequencing duties (so that it would start to feel more natural and I could get away with less reliance on the manual or cheatsheet). It’s worked pretty well. There’s also something about the system that feels more like a unit without the external control tools (acknowledging there is the computer keyboard attached, that “feels” slightly different that a control surface to me though, I think because I’m not typically changing my scripts a ton after I have set the patch up, and rather exploring them by altering triggers to those scripts, most often by my tempi)

I think one more thing to take into account when thinking about the modular as an instrument is the ability to recall. You kind of get to this when you mention:

Focusing on the Teletype has taught me I really value having recallable sequences (or rather, melodic sequence “systems” that return something vaguely melodically cohesive, even if things aren’t like 100% set and have some level of randomization). I think the melodic content, for my own music, is second (or maybe rather, I feel like I like it to exist in a different creative phase) to the timbral and changing sounds over time that I really enjoy spending my time exploring.

Another thing I’ve found is that I personally don’t have the patience/confidence to come back to something simple and build it into something more complex. I feel much more comfortable and in a creative space if I can more-or-less have a finished thing that I record (using effects afterwards to make it more full is fine) So for me, going the modules-that-make-up-a-monosynth route would probably be a ton of fun, but I think I would have a lot of trouble utilizing the output in some sort of “finished” work if it needed several passes.

And one more thing that I really value are modules that have many uses. I feel like I have some pretty core flows that at this point I reach for, but it’s fun to have the potential to explore wildly different flows (cause somtimes just creating something new on something I feel pretty confident with is not super interesting). Just Friends (can be a sound generator, trigger sequencer, envelope generator), Rings (can be a simple poly-ish voice or a really interesting effect that reacts to inputs in sometimes pretty unexpected, non-linear ways), and Teletype are all good examples of this for me.