Sunday, 19 November 2017


some notes / refs for my talk at unsound adelaide 2017 on how to get into modular synthesis without going broke in the process. there's obviously a strong emphasis on cheap / diy / open source as an entry point to modular..

disclaimer: i am not responsible for your adventures in electronics and soldering etc. you do so at your own risk!! please follow all the usual safety precautions for getting into electronics.

+ UPDATE audio of talk is now online =>

lets have a look at getting started on mega low cost simple bit of diy with passive modules =>

u don't really need to understand how electronic circuits work to do synth diy, what u need to do as a minimum is be able to identify components and maybe do some soldering etc. if you buy kits. when you're starting out tho, u can get by using just breadboard.

u can do really simple waveshaping with pn junctions such as found in diodes, transistors, leds etc.  and these components cost a few cents to maybe a dollar or so depending where you start. we can hook up a diode straight on the output of an oscillator etc. and use it as a fixed half wave rectifying shaper. we can add a little pot on the diode input to give us a drive control.. and stick some jack sockets on and put it in a lunch box.. and before you know it you've made your first module for a couple of bucks..

see graham hintons page on how useful rectification can be, including ems style rectification for shape modulation => here + here including lots of info on how to get the most of ring modulation.

talking of ring mods, the diode transformer ring modulator is a classic synth module thats so cheap and easy to build. there is a great intro to them by hugh davies here. + there's some pics i took of roberta settels diode transformer ring mod at ems sweden here. have a look at the original patent as you can see its a very simple circuit, consisting of just 2 transformers and 4 diodes =>

you can make a single channel for about $10 to 15AUS !  i love them and seem to keep building them.. here's what you need :

2x transformers e.g. these from jaycar
4x diodes, pretty much any diode will do, but most folks go for germanium diodes or silicon schottky diodes e.g. these from jaycar, but you can also just use plain old 1N4148 if you want..

you can build them onto a circuit board or croc clip them together which i often do if you dont wanna solder..

if you dont want to make one at all, you can get them pre-built for $35AUS from Elby Designs here, and there are tons of other cheap kits there..

talking of cheap kits, many places on ebay also sell little signal generator / oscillator kits too, often using classic cheap function gen chips like these two based on 8038 or XR2206.

at some point u have to take the plunge and buy a few things.. so i;d suggest start with a modest system e.g. 3u if you go for eurorack. i'd suggest having a look at some classic architectures, e.g. vcs3/synthi aks for an idea of what a nice little modular synth can be loaded up with: 3xVCO/LFO,  noise, ring modulator, filter, enelope gen, vca, reverb, external input, joystick and a pin matrix, + a sequencer on the synthi aks.

a recent eurorack purcha$e =>

i'm not one to throw cash wildly at synth manufacturers, but i've just recently got hold of a doepfer a-196 PLL module, mainly because the core chip inside, a 4046 PLL is quite cheap at 75c, easy to get hold of and has been on my to do list for far too many years. so decided to give it a go and if i think its a good module, i can invest a bit of time and knock up a few 4046 style circuits on the cheap :) + the module itself is very cheap, about $100AUS, i got mine from patchcable in tasmania. i checked this great video by mylar melodies before i parted with the ca$h of course.. =>

it's a great little fun module for the price and unusual with the phase comparator. you get 3 audio outputs, linear vco, phase detector comparator, low pass filter all in one module. check out mylar melodies other videos too, super useful if you want to check out a module of interest. another good place for this is divkid.

there's not too many modules i know of that use the 4046 chip, but the bartons musical circuits 4046 shaper is worth a look for diy-ers.. blank PCB is just $8US or full kit is $90.

i decided to get a 3rd party opinion too, so i asked aphex twin for a couple of rec's :] =>
dave: am needing to give out a few good cheapo module rec's for my talk at unsound adelaide. do u have any recomenders i can quote u on, euro / kit or otherwise ? if so, i'd suggest a price limit of around 100quid-ish as a max for a "cheap' module :) obviously theres the doper a-196 PLL i just got arrived today which is great, ! + the a-112 sampler/wavetable of course :)

rich: really like the distortion on this one
well good VFM, especially i as i like it much more than loads of other distortion devices which are 10 times more expensive.

ah this one
can potentially output any sound imaginable !-)
spose you could say that about a vca though..

dave: thanks m8!

arduino/teensy/axoloti /open source/diy et al =>

lets go back to diy, and see what else is around.. theres a few good things coming out for arduino, which is probably going to be a good next step after you've played around with diodes etc.. you can get basic arduino boards like the nano and the pro-mini for less than $10AUS! you can also get them with screw terminal adaptors for the non-solderers.. here & here. the great thing about arduino is that it has 5v analogue inputs, and a bunch of digital i/o that interface very simply to modular clobber.

i've made a whole bunch of things with arduino's including my uMANIAC which is a cellular automata sequencer module which is built around a nano =>

theres a few good things out there for arduino, the mozzi sound synthesis library is a great set of tools for arduino where "sounds can be quickly and easily constructed from familiar synthesis units like oscillators, delays, filters and envelopes."
GMSN! : make open source modules, including some arduino based ones.
rebel technology : make open source arduino based modules, a little pricier but you can always make them yourself..

teensy : teensy is an interesting development, very similar to arduino, be sure to check out the teensy audio board : and check out the audio system design tool to see the type of modules its got. note that the audio library can output from the teensy's built in dacs as well, so you can even work it without the audio board! i get mine from core electronics in australia. here's my 3.2 with an audio board and some i/o tacked on =>

axoloti : this is a great little board that costs only $100 and comes with a patcher application to enable you to create your own little modular very easily.

its also expandable via a connection strip for the diyers! its got a truly MASSIVE patch/module library, including a port of another favourite module of mine, the braids macro oscillator.

braids was made by mutable instruments and was their best selling module, but has recently been discontinued in preparation for a new module. If you want VFM this has got to be one of the most versatile oscillator modules out there! most of the mutable instruments modules are open source, and you can get kits to make them. i got my 2 custom made by finlay shakespeare for a very good price :)

finlay also runs a small eurorack outfit called future sound systems and even makes a modest priced mtx9 pin matrix module.

midisizer : diy projects here include a little cv/midi sequencer & a little 4 channel midi to cv/gate converter

dsp synthesizers make a huge range of cheap synth chips and bits for diy!

serge paperface =>

bu.. bu.. but serge is really expensive like several $k or wotever per 4u panel expensive! well, sts is not cheap, however, the old school paperface serge.. that can be super cheap for diy..

73-75 The Serge People's Synthesizer, Revisted DIY kit => and 2 panel DIY build thread is here. this is a great system to consider, check out the modules, i've got 2 of these on order! =>

Elby Designs, home of Serge/CGS => these are not euro format, they are designed for 4u panels and come as kits and u make your own panels. elby also does eurorack serge both in diy and prebuilt.

i'm long term project building my own serge paperface.. here are a few pics of my serge/cgs boards =>

if you want to hear what my serge paperface sounds like have a listen (or buy:) the NYZ - PPLZ SYNF album =>

some free software modular things worth trying out if you've got access to a computer =>

pure data :
automatonism :

theres lots more out there of course.. i just have a soft spot for PD.

other stuff you'll need =>

patch cables, you can diy these very cheaply once u learn to solder. here is a nice little video on soldering technique. note thats its made in usa, so he keeps saying sodder, instead of the two syllable english pronunciation => sold-der :)

croc leads
case or rack or housing or box of some sort. i got mine second hand off ebay as a job lot of 6x 3u racks a few years back. mine are very sturdy industrial racks which came out of the ozzy parliament house and housed the pa/video equipment for many years.. !
power supply, i use the tiptop uZeus and floating bus board which comes in around $150AUS

for diy you'll also want to get basic things like =>
soldering iron & solder if you want to make circuits or leads
cutters / pliers / screw driver / basic tools
digital meter for measuring volts/amps/resistance etc
prototyping pcbs / breadboard
cable, i use old junk cat5 ethernet cable mostly, you see lots of it in skips, both stranded and single core copper!
a cheap oscilloscope is useful, but not essential, depending how deep you want to go.. i've got several different scopes/analyzers over the years. recently though i picked up a bitscope micro bs05, pretty cheap & nifty usb scope/logic analyzer

+ your big decision is how far into diy you want to get, some people even do surface mount soldering..

where to get diy modules / parts =>

elby designs - australia :
synthcube - usa :
thonk - uk :
modular addict - usa :
bartons musical circuits - usa :
music from outer space - usa :

for raw components/tools there's jaycar of course, which is handy when you're starting out because you can go to a real shop. but if you really want to get into it you need to keep costs down, so these mail order places are highly recommended :
rs components
if you buy direct from china you can get some really cheap deals, i've used these places with no problems so far.. but be aware delivery times vary wildly, especially txHang which can take sometimes a month..

finally =>
* highly recommended read is nic collins hardware hacking book for cheap, creative, simple easy electronics intro for soundmaking, and its a free pdf :)