Mutable Instruments modules: design, usability, theory, philosophy, etc


#1

I’m new to modular synthesis, and a few people I’ve spoken to have said that they don’t like Mutable Instruments in general because of their sound and controls. But there are artists I really like who use Rings and Clouds pretty prominently. Are they that unwieldy?


Mutable Instruments Rings
#2

Mutable Instruments gear from the last few years has a lot of thought and care put into the interface – especially the new batch. Some of the older modules have hidden modes, Easter eggs, and so on, as well as alternate firmware that sometimes confuses people. This is especially true of the discontinued modules, though honestly they’re not that bad.

Rings does have a major Easter egg mode and some “hold down this button for other modes” that are pretty well documented but not at all hard to use; the interface overall is straightforward and consistent.

I’ve never used Clouds myself, so I can’t judge that one. The designer, Olivier, doesn’t like how it came out, and though it was one of his top sellers, he discontinued it a few months ago and is likely to replace it later this year with a more focused, improved granular module.


#3

First of all sound and UI are different aspects and should be considered separately (even if, of course, at the end of the day they all concur to making the instrument what it is).

Mutable Instruments seems to be a bit more polarizing than other makers (especially when it comes to modules like Rings and Clouds), some love the sound, some don’t. It mostly comes from the fact that these modules do have quite a specific, not very neutral sound (which isn’t a bad thing in my opinion, after all, we all want a guitar to sound like a guitar don’t we?)
Also it should be said that – especially for Rings – some people don’t dig much into the module’s capabilities, being content with using it in a rather “superficial” way. Rings makes it very easy to just send a trigger and be done with it… which of course is nice sometimes, but is not really where the module shines. Since you can find videos showing just this aspect of the module, this might also bias some people’s perception.
There’s many great artists who make very interesting music with these modules, and show that it all boils down to your skills and to your musical vision (any instrument is just as great as the musician who plays it). As with all modules (and instruments) the sound of certain Mutable modules might be more interesting to create a certain type of music than another one. I say might, because the modules are open-ended enough to give you a pretty big range of possible timbres and sounds.

The UI part is maybe where I can tell you more about, since that’s basically my job at Mutable. Older modules are indeed – as @Starthief has already pointed out – more complex. The alternate modes, do make things a bit more complex, though you can just ignore them of course. Rings is really a very straightforward module to use. There’s nothing really hidden in it, it’s all on the panel, and the knobs do what they do in each mode. You more or less just get different flavours of the same sound.
Clouds is slightly more complex because of the modality of the BLEND knob, which controls D/W, feedback, stereo spread, reverb and the alternate modes (which, as I said though, you can just ignore). The issue with the latter is mostly that the functionality changes quite a bit depending on the mode, which means that it takes a bit of time getting used to that (or a good cheat sheet).
We basically learned from our mistakes of the past and Clouds was the last module to add a lot of these alternate modes. Since Rings Olivier has been focusing a lot on keeping the functionality very consistent with no more hidden things. If you look at the latest modules (eg. Plaits and Marbles) things have been further streamlined.


#4

I can understand why people don’t dig the alternate, hidden modes, but I love them and think it was a great thing about the mutable modules. Also the parasites firmwares.
It’s great for people that want to keep their skiff small, they can discover and try a lot of things on a limited space and budget.
I also don’t really get the problems with the blend knob on clouds. There are many features and functions in the modular world that a far more complicated than learning how to use this knob. It only controls 4 parameters in the stock firmware.
Not to say the designs of the new modules aren’t nice. I love plaits, it’s really nice to handle


#6

There is always the parasites firmware, the people who want simplicity can leave theirs alone, those of us after multifunctionality can access open source stuff :slight_smile:


#7

The only usability issues I’ve had with Mutable modules:

Peaks: I insisted on using Expert Mode to get the most out of it. But the knobs can’t be “read” – is that top knob showing the attack time of the envelope on channel 1, or the frequency of the envelope on channel 2? The only way to tell is to turn the knob, changing the current setting. And all too often, I’d just grab a knob and not realize I had the wrong channel selected.

Also I used the Dead Man’s Catch firmware, which adds a lot of cool functionality to it but required a cheat sheet to show what was selected. I find I don’t really like cheat sheets.

Warps: The Parasite firmware is a bit too cheat-sheet heavy for my liking; the control meanings change too much. The stock firmware is easy to work with though! (And the stuff Parasite offered, while pretty neat, wasn’t far off from effects plugins I have anyway.)

Frames: To some extent, once you start automating it, it has the “unreadable knobs” issue, but it’s less insidious than Peaks. The real problem I had was never remembering how to change the interpolation/response curves, how to switch from CV to sequencer control, etc. But mostly because I didn’t use those frequently – I found myself using the module like a giant Shades, for attenuation, offset and mixing, under manual control rather than automated. I decided those needs would be better suited by other modules…)

I never had any trouble with the interface of Tides, Rings, Streams, Plaits, Marbles, or Stages. Or Shades :wink: I’ve briefly confused myself with Stages a few times, but the answer was always that I plugged in a gate somewhere to the left of segments that used to be independent, so I’ve gotten used to shuffling things as necessary if I have to rethink my patch.


#8

I can’t speak for Olivier but I would not say that he stopped including alternate modes because people complained about them. Most people actually liked them. It’s more that he has refined his vision of how an instrument should be like. This refined vision is the product of experience gained, of making things and analysing how well these turned out based on your own goals. It’s the product of a learning process, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Olivier is that you have to always be sincere with yourself and accept your own mistakes and learn from them. This all reflects on the newer modules.


#10

Do you mean things Olivier has said, or people’s complaints about the complexity of his modules?


#12

what’s happening here folks.


#14

Hannes has it here:

this is very much what I’ve heard from Olivier too and I see his designs from Rings onward as a significant refinement of his work but also as a more robust understand of designing for the eurorack format and “ecosystem.” I think it’s worth understand the “lack of multimode modules and alt firmwares” in light of this kind of developmental process, that MI was never intended to be “the multimode/alt firmware brand.”


#16

microRings is here!


#17

@Kel: please note that I was just enquiring out of curiosity. I do have a hard time keeping track of the discussions going on online so it’s always likely I might have missed something.
Just to be clear: What I stated above is a sum up of what what I remember Olivier having stated in a couple of posts, freely paraphrased by me (so it’s mostly my personal interpretation of his words and thoughts, purely from memory).

Don’t worry, didn’t feel like we were arguing, or were we? Really not my intention. I know your intentions were not bad in any way either.

But to get back to the main theme. My perception is very much the same that has been expressed here by others. Some people actually like the alternate modes/firmwares/easter eggs and I can totally understand the reasoning behind it. Modules cost lot of money, need space in cases which, again, cost lots of money. Getting some free, extra functionality is something one has a hard time arguing against. It’s also a nice way to have more “material” to experiment with.
There is some good reasons against it though, and – just to be clear – this is now me personally speaking, I’m not saying this on behalf of MI (even though my opinion on the matter is pretty similar to Olivier’s in these regards).
First of all, you need to ask yourself, as a designer or engineer, what is the modular, what do you want it to be? What kind of approach/attitude do you want to foster, and what do you not want to foster? There needs to be a vision about that. Some of the now classic electronic instruments incorporate a very clear vision. The Buchla didn’t come with a keyboard, and did not really work well for 12TET-based material, for that reason.
There’s example of musicians who have having spent a lot of time working with just one instrument, trying to really push that to the max. This is a great example of the type of attitude I would personally like to encourage and foster. Another aspect is: what is the identity of a module? Around which sonic elements, controls, feedback patterns do you construct the identity of a module? The best modules are those where everything is a branch of a central, strong core functionality and everything clearly gravitates around this centre.
This makes the instrument both easy to understand and strongly increases its potential.
I could go on for hours on this topic of course… :slight_smile:


#19

I think the community might take care of that. All the modules are still open source, so it’s not unlikely that somebody might make an alternate firmware just as it happened for some of the older modules.

The Teletype is another one btw.! Then of course both the ER-301 and the TT are really made for that, with their display-based UI, they are made for multi-modality, so there is really makes sense.
There’s always the danger of feature creep going bad though…


#20

This is a constant concern of mine.


#21

Could just be me being a bit grumpy, but I really don’t understand the constant need to downsize Mutable modules.

It’s cool it’s an option (especially for the discontinued modules), but downsizing current modules for the sake of downsizing goes beyond me. Besides less HP I don’t see any gains.

Sorry for ranting!


#22

I could understand it for Braids, I guess. Maybe Frames, except I think that effort went too far; part of the appeal of Frames was its playability.

It made a lot of sense for Ornament + Crime though, where the new panel layout was an improvement over the original.

I wonder if someone’s going to try an 8 HP Stages where all the sliders are replaced by mini-pots :laughing:


#23

Y’all best cover your eyes when uElements is released :joy:


#25

I thought I read somewhere that downsizing Stages would be very hard


#26

To this day (and peaks was the third module I bought) I need to open the damn cheat sheet for what the knobs do in the different modes.

But it will take something special to make me take it out of my rack


#27

I feel the same way! At a certain point, it feels like it can hinder the playability and useability of a module.

However, I feel that hp really starts to matter when one is building smaller instruments. In a 50hp case, 6hp is quite a bit of real estate.


Mutable Instruments Rings