There I was a year ago happy enough with meters and meters of 1/4 inch jack cables slung around my studio connecting multiple drum machines, synths, and analogue kit along with a huge 24 track Allen & Heath mixer into mix – pun intended.
1. A performing tool background:
I did a gig with a friend in 2018 and so created a portable live case set around an Elektron Octatrack which I loved using and so this was a corner stone in my design for a modular setup a few years later which I found myself starting to build in the late Summer of 2021. *Rule #1
A house-move in 2021 saw me having to reassess my studio taking up a whole room My partner and myself were to share a bigger second room for both her working space as a travel writer and teacher and my studio. Things had to change as the room was too small for all my kit and her workspace. I downsized by 40% odd and managed to squeeze what I needed into an L shaped setup. Things were OK until I saw a post on Reddit.
This complete U-turn in my studio started about from a random cross post on a Reddit r/synth group I was following. The post showed off a mini 64HP 1U rack that the person built for sound mangling and warping, set around a Panharmonium module by Rossum Electro-Music, which is a spectral sound processor and tone generator. I was lured in already on this thing and the “Euro rack world” that I ignored all this time was starting to get me intrigued, especially as the size and dimensions of rack space could bring a studio down in size significantly. "Just a small case" I thought to myself...
2. What is it you want to archive with the rack?
My main goal was to have something like the Sherman Filter Bank I owned which I once vowed I would never ever sell, having an Octatrack type sequencer and the sound design aspect.
Many mistakes were made, *Rule #3. I made wrong purchases which I managed to sell with little to no loss in money in the second-hand market but the modules I had to buy new I did have to take a hit on the RRP when flipping on Reverb., but that was the gamble with getting into a whole new world. For the sound of Eurorack it was worth the struggle to learn things and make some mistakes along the way. Incidentally this whole project was backed by several thousands of pounds of kit that I had sold previously and was continuing to sell from last August. *Rule #4
I was lucky in that respect as the Eurorack game can be hugely expensive to get into and a rabbit hole to boot. Of course, another option is to hunker down to get one module every so often to eventually build a rack after a year or two.
3. Drums, mixer, large sequencer, or none of the above?
One of my outliner rules was that since I had to sell everything including my beloved 808 and 909 clones, I had to have drums in the rack. This also applied to a mixer. This was held fast as a rule as I simply had no space to add external mixers and drum machines. Decide if you can get away with using an external mixer in your setup. You could also argue that having an external sequencer will also free up massive valuable space in your rack. In the words of Don Logon from the film Sexy Beast: “preparation, preparation, preparation...!”
4. Success to complete and not go round in circles:
Fast forward to New Year 2021 and with 1000’s of hours on Modular Grid, YouTube, listening to podcasts in the car and Mod Wiggler forums over 6 months - the rack was finally finished. The system I built can create sound design and experimental textures, drones and animated generative progressions if needed but the one thing I know I wanted when starting to design and think about what I wanted was to have a performance-based case where I could follow a set of hard patched principal modules to get a beat or groove going quickly. The other main need was to be able to track things individually into Logic Pro for mixing and/or further editing. *Rule #5
This was my own journey and everyone’s is different based on their own tastes and needs, it's just an account of how I started into Modular and what I learnt along the way, there are a vast amount of things I still need to learn more and my end goal is to be able to create continuous transitions so to be able to use the rack as a kind of DJ set of decks whereby I can change things to progress onto other routes to create a performance set of 30 – 60 minutes. This is the hardest thing to do with modular, but practice, practice, practice!
What I wish I knew from the start, some rules of guidance:
#1 Design on paper what it is you want – lesson here is to not go round in circles spending hard cash on trying to figure out what you want. You’ll need to experiment with modules and some on paper just won’t fill your boots or vibe with you. I knew I preferred tracking and since I sold my huge desk, I needed a mixer so started with a full-sized mixer in the rack as a starting point.
#2 stick to a size and keep space free for expansion – it will happen!
#3 Use modular Grid and practice on VCV Rack software for a few months
#4 Set a budget around a case first! Find the case you will need - either powered or cheaper way can be non-powered and using some power strip modules in rack. Then cost in the modules you will need then add 20% as a top up budget for those things you will need, extra patch cables, utility modules, mults, ¼ to 1/8 cables to connect outside mixers or input devices into the rack like guitar effect pedals and so forth. This last costing mounts up quickly.
#5 You will want to keep modules and buy others but at some point, you’re going to have to make hard decisions on what to keep in. Use the rule of ‘One in One out’ or make those decisions before you start adding more rows and going way over budget. I wish I could have kept my Make Noise Morphagene but the size was too big and what it did (although amazing) I found I could achieve something similar but at a smaller HP size using another clone module. Things will change and so you will inevitable find yourself selling a module here and there to replace with something better suited – just the nature of the beast that is modular in that sometimes you just need to try out a module to see if it fits with your expectations
Surgeon points out in his talk at Elevator Sounds (Video link below) the use of loopers to give time for changes to be made whilst letting the looper carry the groove along for a while before letting the rack continue in a new direction. The looper in question is the 4MS DLD which I decided to invest in and so I'm still getting used to using it in a similar way.
This is still all work in progress for me as I am still learning my way around how to route things for this intent, but that’s where the fun and experimental nature of modular comes in!
The DB25 module from WMD is how I get around feeding individual tracks into Logic Pro. By using a patch bay, 2 snake cables feed 14 channels from the WMD mixer in rack out to Logic. I drilled and cut a hole in the back of the case to fit the module using an adapter plate so as not to waste space on the main rack.
#6 Practice and practice! I'm glad I came out of this not too unnerved in what I originally set out to do or got disillusioned. To have some kind of navigation point of reference from the start in all this was so helpful as it's far too easy and expensive to get sucked into a never-ending buy & sell vicious circle of trying to find the completed rack with no clear set of rules. Even filling those last little gaps can be all too consuming. What advice I have read on this, and I know Mylarmelodies on his YouTube channels talks of this is the importance of space and interaction with the modules. To many tight 2HP modules will soon get a bit too much.
Practice is key as always, which incidentally is so important when finally finishing the rack build. You have to give it several months of invested time to get to know your system and find tricks and routings to which only your own unique built rack will start to reveal to you.
I haven’t mention music taste at all in this piece as that is irrelevant in my view for the purpose of this article. Techno styles do seem to be more manageable in Eurorack but I refuse to believe that you can’t make other styles, Hip Hop, Trap, Drum & Bass, Glitch beats, even Indie-shoe-gaze Rock (like using a rack as a guitar FX input and drum box) with the right tools anything is possible!
Sequencing other more complex styles is key here and so whether it’s a tracker style interface, XOXO or a highbred of the two or more (multiple sequencers in rack?) then anything is possible!
Also, I have not mentioned a whole lot about cases. This will need to be a primary decision based on the users’ needs and wants for their rack.
Hope this will help someone out there in finding their feet in the word of patching and rocking in the modular world!
Mark J. Alderson – producer, audio recordist and sound designer.
SuziBEE Mind Tours:
Under the Big Tree: