Sunday, March 20, 2016

The making of "Hyboid - Terrör of the Üniverse"

It has been quite a while since I last posted on this blog, for a simple reason: I was totally caught up in making music! Between June 26 and September 25 I locked myself up in my studio and recorded like a maniac, track after track. I spent 58 days in the studio, ending up with 14 pieces, 12 of which made it on my new album: "Terrör of the Üniverse"!

Here is the story:

I have a friend in Spain, he is a fellow electronic musician called Tvnel. In May he asked me if he could record his new album in my studio in Berlin. It would take about one week and we would be recording 9 or 10 songs during that week. It sounded like fun, so I invited him over. He stayed in my studio for a week and we arranged and recorded like crazy. We actually managed to lay down 9 tracks during that week. So, what was so extraordinary about this session? Well, up until then my workflow would be like this: Record MIDI data into a DAW, edit the data, quantize it where necessary, trigger my synths, drummachines and samplers with this MIDI data and record the resulting audio as a stereo sum or separate stems.

Tvnel working his Machinedrum. Astro Chicken Studio, June 2015

My friend Tvnel had a completely different approach. All he brought to the recording session was his Elektron Machinedrum. It had all the patterns stored inside that he needed to record the album. The rest would be hand-played keyboards and real-time arpeggiated stuff, as well as my drum boxes running on their internal sequencers. We also used my Roland CSQ-600 sequencer to provide the sequences that we needed. All sequencers, all the live-playing, hands-on arpeggiator experience and drummachine programming was so much fun. Much more fun and more inspiring than I had ever expected.
Don't get me wrong. Of course I have worked with hardware sequencers, arpeggiators and built-in sequencers before (I have a modular system that I like to play with). However, when it comes to "serious" track making and producing I always felt I had to rely on my DAW and MIDI software sequencers to be the core of my setup.

I had wanted to make a new album for ages. My first two albums were released in 2010 (Aliens ate my Synthesizer!) and 2011 (Where Androids come to die) so it was about time I released something new on vinyl. However, during the last 3 years I made a lot of tracks that I think are pretty good but way too diverse and not coherent enough to make an album.

Well, here I was. After an intense week of recording sessions Tvnel went back to Spain. I had my studio all for myself and was all pumped up, inspired and motivated to make some tracks! I started to incorporate the new workflow into my own music making. What exactly did I do? First of all I decided to do away with software MIDI sequencing altogether. All that pushing around MIDI events, quantizing and fine-tuning with my mouse really had me fed up. I wanted to get my hands dirty, play and arpeggiate my synths live as much as possible. I started by declaring my Oberheim DMX drummachine master MIDI clock generator for all the other machines involved. I multiplied the DMX's MIDI clock signal and converted it to analog triggers via my Doepfer A-190-8 MIDI sync interface. I also converted it to DIN Sync 24 to synchronize my Roland TR-606.
I used the analog trigger signals from the Doepfer module (usually 8th or 16th notes) to sync the built-in sequencers and arpeggiators of my Korg Mono/Poly and Polysix (both modded and equipped with the awesome ModyPoly modifications by Sometimes I would also arpeggiate my Juno-60 using these analog trigger signals. Last not least my trusty old Roland CSQ-600 sequencer would get its sync signals either via these analog triggers or from the TR-606's trigger outs.
When starting a new track, I would simply run my DMX and 606 in sync and start fiddling with basslines and arpeggios all in synced to the master clock as well. As soon as I got a musically pleasing idea I would record it to my DAW running Ableton Live 8 via my Marian Adcon ADAT interface (using an old RME Digi96/8 interface card). I would then record my audio tracks one after another and slowly build up a track in my DAW. However, I soon realized that the DMX's internal clock was all but stable. It would drift out of sync for several milliseconds over the course of a couple of minutes, making it very hard to keep all my audio tracks in sync. So I recorded a 606 trigger signal serving as a "click track" whenever I recorded an audio track, later using this click track to align the recorded audio tracks with each other. This workflow slowed me down quite a bit so after three tracks I decided to use my DAW's MIDI clock as the master clock source. Now MIDI clock and audio tracks were sample-locked together, making overdubs and editing a 1000 times easier. No looking back ever since!
All the effects you hear on my album are hardware effects from the 80s. In some cases I recorded the effects signal mixed with the dry signal when I was confident that it sounded good. Sometimes I recorded dry and wet signals separately, giving me the option to balance dry levels against wet levels later in the mixing process. All tracks were then mixed "in the box" in my DAW (Ableton Live 8) and rendered to stereo tracks for mastering.

Astro Chicken Studio, July 2015

A word about my signal chain: All drums go through my old Ibanez RM-80 rack mixer with pretty hot levels to get that nice punchy mixer compression. A Roland SRV-2000 reverb processor and a Korg SDD-1000 digital delay were patched to the RM-80 mixer's aux send and returns, so the effects also profited from that punchy crunchy RM-80 sound. I then recorded the RM-80s tape output directly into my DAW via ADAT interface.
I had all other synths and effects run through my Soundcraft Spirit M12 mixer for monitoring and routing purposes. From there everything went straight into my DAW via the mixer´s direct out.
During the recording sessions 2 of my 8 ADAT inputs died on me, making it a little cumbersome to record stereo pairs, but hardships are meant to be overcome, right?
Let me give you a run-down of the instruments I used during the production of my "Terrör of the Üniverse" album:

Roland CSQ-600

Roland CSQ-600

An old CV / Gate sequencer from the early 80s. It has 4 memory slots that can each store a maximum of 150 notes. The CSQ-600 is insanely easy and intuitive to use and very reliable at that. I used it with the Octave Kitten for ALL bassline sequencing duties, as well as for some additional sequencer lines. I programmed the CSQ-600 using my Roland SH-09 since they are conveniently located right next to each other. So I basically used SH-09 as the master keyboard for the CSQ-600! The CSQ would get its trigger (sync) signals from my modular Doepfer MIDI-to-clock converter or from one of the 606's trigger outputs.
Only 4 memory slots in the CSQ-600 and you wonder how I managed to make proper tracks like this? Well, to tell you the truth, 4 memory slots WAS actually enough for me to lay down all basslines for all the tracks. Keep in mind though that this required some clever programming at times (pat my own shoulder, ahem...). Also, during the recording process I would have to manually switch between the 4 memory slots to play the sequences in their desired order. At the same time I would then tweak the Kitten's filter cutoff so this method often took me quite a number of attempts to get everything right. To stop the CSQ-600 at the right time (at the end of a track, for instance) I would frequently have to pull out the trigger cable at the right moment (sometimes between 16th notes!). So there was some crazy perfectionist business going on at Astro Chicken studio at times. To sum up, the CSQ-600 was an essential workhorse for my album.

Oberheim DMX

Oberheim DMX

A legendary early digital drummachine. My DMX is fitted with Electrongate's MIDI interface. Running on its own clock the DMX has a tendency to drift away over time, giving away that its clock generator is not very stable. Running in slave mode synced to MIDI clock, however, the DMX is as tight as you could ever wish for! I simply adore this drummachine. Its samples sound crisp and punchy, the sequencer is super easy to use, the timing is right on and it looks amazing! The DMX is featured on many tracks on my album. On some tracks I would use the song mode to actually chain individual sequences to make a complete track. Sometimes I would simply record individual sequences and cut them up on my DAW later to arrange the final drum track. Check out the track "High-Gloss Üniverse" for some funky DMX drum action!

Roland TR-606

Roland TR-606

Another legendary drummachine. I only got my 606 this year so it is a fairly new addition to my setup. I don't know what took me so long to get one?! I love it. So easy to use, very simple yet effective layout, and the sound of course... Classical punchy analog drum sounds, can sound very 808-like, hence the nickname "poor man's 808". I used it on most of the tracks. Sometimes I recorded the sum (the 606 does not have individual outputs, only a mono sum output), sometimes individual instruments one after another to different audio tracks. Check out "Flight of the Astro Kitten" for a pure 606 experience!

Octave Kitten (Revision 1)

Octave Kitten

My bass machine number one at the moment. The Kitten is the little brother to the Octave Cat (as the Arp Axxe is to the Arp Odyssey). It's a 1-VCO synth but don't let this technical detail fool you. The Kitten sounds HUGE and has major balls. Its super-fat sounding discrete VCO with 2 (yes, TWO!) sub-oscillators plus its SSM2040 filter give it a great, classic 70s vintage sound that is up there with other more famous 70s monosynths. The Kitten is super-rare here in Europe. I got it from a music shop in Germany for a very acceptable price. A synth to fall in love with and a definite keeper in my studio. All basslines on the "Terrör of the Üniverse" album were done with the Octave Kitten, sequenced via Roland CSQ-600 sequencer. "Flight of the Astro Kitten" sports quite some Kitten for example, including hand-played lead sounds at 1:38 min and 2:59 min.

Roland Juno-60

Roland Juno-60

My workhorse polysynth. Not much to say about the Juno-60´s qualities that hasn't been said a 1000 times before. I hand-played many, many, MANY parts on the Juno-60 for my album: Strings, chords, some leads, arpeggios... Totally essential instrument. Keeper! The Juno-60 is all over my album, there is no particular track to highlight this synth. Simply listen to the entire album. OK, wait... To give you an example: On "Terrör of the Üniverse (Intro)" all pads are from the Juno-60.

Roland SH-09

Roland SH-09

I got my SH-09 from a friend of mine, the man who is behind the legendary syntheticmachines series of vintage synth demos on youtube. It is the very machine demoed in this youtube clip:
I love the SH-09 for its classy, late-70s tone. A very simple 1-VCO synth, but BOY does it sound good! A perfect example of a simple design that ended up as an awesome synthesizer. I hand-played most of the SH-09 stuff on the album (with the exception of a few percussion and effects sounds that I sequenced using the 606's trigger outputs). For hand-playing the SH-09 I sometimes resorted to using the Mono/Poly as a remote (master) keyboard for the SH-09 (using Mono/Poly´s CV and Gate outputs) as the Mono/Poly has a keyboard with a wider range plus less issues with double-triggering keys (which my SH-09 does have, unfortunately). Check out the track "Terrör of the Üniverse (Intro)" for some hand-played lead sounds starting at 0:44 min or "Marauder Joe´s Adventures in Space" for the bass-sound that kicks in at 3:22 min.

Korg Polysix (with Tubbutec ModyPoly modification)

Korg Polysix

I bought my Polysix from my friend Tubbu-Tobi who is the man behind the company Tubbu-Tobi is a real expert (dare I say "guru") on the Polysix and the Mono/Poly and is well-experienced in repairing and modding these old synths. The Polysix is infamous for its leaking-battery problem which fortunately can be resolved in most of the cases. I got my Polysix repaired and fitted with Tubbutec's ModyPoly modification which adds MIDI in and out connectors as well as many useful features. For example there is the Power Arp which adds an SH-101-style step sequencer or the Poly Chord feature adding the capability to store individual chords to each key of the Polysix's keys (all of the above holds true for the Mono/Poly, too, which can be fitted with the ModyPoly mod as well). I made heavy use of both features mentioned above (Power Arp and Poly Chord) during the process of making the album. The Power Arp is insanely useful and dead-easy on top of that! I used the Poly Chord mode for the chord progression on the track "Marauder Joe´s Adventures in Space" (kicking in at 0:14 min). I also used it for some of the chords on "High-Gloss Üniverse" and "Lament for My Eta Carinae", where I remote-controlled my Juno-60 via the Polysix´s MIDI out, using the Polysix´s Poly Chord mode. I know this is quite a convoluted way of working with synths, but hey, what ever works... It's the result that counts.
I also hand-played lots of stuff on the Polysix, for example the squarewave bell sound on "Cosmo Speedrun" starting at 2:57 min.

Korg Mono/Poly (with Tubbutec ModyPoly modification)

Korg Mono/Poly
My Mono/Poly is fitted with Tubbutec´s Mody/Poly modification which adds MIDI in / out functionality, a step sequencer called Power Arp, Poly Chord mode and other useful features. During the making of my "Terrör of the Üniverse" album I re-discovered how widely useful the Mono/Poly really is. In the recent years I had been using the Mono/Poly for bass duties mostly so I had really been neglecting its other timbres (which there are a lot of!). Now, with the bass part being covered by my Octave Kitten, the Mono/Poly was freed up to do whatever I pleased. So I used it mostly for arpeggios, sequencer lines and lead sounds. The Mono/Poly has super-snappy envelopes that let it do great punchy sequencer lines. On top of that, its SSM2044 filter makes for some really smooth filter action when used as a lead synth. For example, on the track "Starfighter Romance" I hand-played the lead line starting at 1:45 min using only one of the Mono/Poly's VCOs (PWM via LFO). Not really a trademark use of the Mono/Poly's 4 VCOs and crazy modulation possibilites, but a great example of what the Mono/Poly can deliver in terms of bread-and-butter sounds. 
For the track "High-Gloss Üniverse" I made good use of the ModyPoly mod's Poly Chord feature. I programmed a row of 4-note chords and mapped these chords across different keys on the Mono/Poly´s keyboard. I then hand-played and recorded 2 solos using the Poly Chord mode, so each key that is pressed plays a chord of 4 notes. You can make some crazy shit happen with this feature. Listen to "High-Gloss Üniverse" (starting at 1:20 min and 3:43 min respectively) and you will know what I am talking about.

Arp Axxe (Mk. III with Timothy Smith filter modification)

Arp Axxe

I bought my Axxe a while ago from a colleague who told me he had a broken Axxe lying around at home. I picked it up for a decent price and had my friend Risk Risk repair it. A week later or so it was up and running again! I think the Axxe is still an underrated synth. It is a stripped-down 1-VCO version of the Odyssey (very much stripped-down, that is!). Still it is capable of delivering earth-shattering lows and soft, elegant lead sounds (and pretty much everything in between, including awesome FX sounds!). It is a synth begging to be played (I mean hand-played). A very expressive instrument. There is quite nothing that comes close to its PWM sound, it really is outstanding! I used the Axxe for lots of FX and percussive stuff like noise bursts or toms, but also for additional basses and lead lines. "Kingdom of the Laser Dwarves" sports hand-played Axxe leads making use of its PPC modulation button for vibrato (1:08 min and 2:51 min). Or check out "Flight of the Astro Kitten" for that deep PWM sound at 1:54 min and 3:16 min.

These are the effects processors I used:

Roland SRV-2000

Nice early digital reverb by Roland (wasn't this actually the first digital reverb by Roland?). Great for drums. That's why I used this box entirely and completely for drums on my album. So: All drum reverbs on "Terrör of the Üniverse": Roland SRV-2000. Simple as that!

Dynacord DRP-20

I bought this German reverb processor from my friend Risk Risk a couple of years ago. When it was released in 1989 it was supposedly intended as a direct competitor to the Lexicon PCM 70. I can testify that the DRP-20 is a superb reverb processor. It has some very interesting algorithms and allows for some deep editing. I really dig the long reverbs that you can get out of this box.

Korg SDD-1000

Dead-easy to use early digital delay. Simple interface, great sound (negative feedback = great for flanging effects). I used it as a flanger for drums on some tracks.

Korg SDD-1200

The SDD-1200 is basically two SDD-1000s in one box (I say "basically" as there ARE differences, but of very technical nature). The SDD-1200 played a major role on my album: I used it as a stereo delay on every track. Whatever signal needs space and stereo width, I send it through the SDD-1200 and it sounds awesome. You have to be very careful about setting the input gain pots as they are very sensitive. There is a very nice feature on the SDD-1200 that deserves mention: You can modulate delay times with 2 individual built-in analog LFOs or you can set the first LFO to modulate delay time for both channels. Hell, you can even have the second delay channel´s time to be modulated by a phase-inverted version of the master LFO! That´s what I did at the end of "Flight of the Astro Kitten". Can you hear how both delays change their pitch periodically in reverse directions?

Deltalab Effectron JR 1050

Great early American-built digital delay. Pretty no-frills but very good sounding. I used it as a static (= non-modulated) delay on some basslines and many sequences and arpeggios.

Aria DEX-1000

Obscure digital delay from the Japanese guitar maker Aria. Built around 1983 I think. It has 2 features that deserve special mention. The first feature is a very practical one: The DEX-1000 has input and output jacks on the back and on the front! A very practical and strangely pretty rare feature.
The second feature: It has a CV input that can modulate delay time. This is a great feature if you have a modular system. You can throw any CV signal at it (as long as it is positive voltage, I suppose) and modulate to your heart's content. I made good use of this feature on the track "Toxic Avenger vs. Marshmallow Man". I used the DEX-1000 for a subtle flanging effect on the bassline. In order to modulate the DEX-1000´s delay time I used the Mono/Poly´s Power Arp (clocked with 16th triggers) to send CV data to the DEX-1000´s CV input. If you listen closely, you can hear the periodic timbre changes on the bassline.

Lexicon LXP-1

Neat little box that can be had for really cheap. Nothing spectacular about this box. It is very easy to use and what is really practical about the LXP-1 is that it has knobs for input level and dry/wet level. I used it as a delay effect on one or two tracks of the album.

Vermona Phaser 80

East German all-analog effects box from the late 70s or early 80s. I think it sounds more like a flanger, though. Apparently there is a version of the Phaser 80 that has adjustable effect depth and input sensitivity. Mine does not have this feature. I have used the Phaser 80 on a couple of tracks on my album. Great sounding little unit.

Let me give you a few notes about a couple of tracks on the "Terrör of the Üniverse" album.

Terrör of the Üniverse (Intro)

This was the last track I recorded. I wanted to do the intro last as I felt it was going to play a key role and I was really looking forward to making a track with no drums at all. A kind of orchestral overture. I knew it was going to feature a Berlin school bassline and some thick Juno-60 pads. The Oxygen-style glissando was quite easy to do. I simply let my right-hand index finger slide up along the black keys of my Arp Axxe. The piece being in E flat helped here, of course. The sequencer line that emerges at around 1:01 min is the Mono/Poly. I recorded it just as a sketch while fiddling around with its oscillator mix, noise and filter cutoff. It ended up in the final mix. Another example of random byproduct being the final take! Note to self: Always record your takes, even if they are just rehearsals.

High-Gloss Üniverse

This track was quite tough to do. First of all, I wanted to do something different for a change. Not my usual 8th or 16th octave bass (admittedly a perennial Hyboid trademark). High-Gloss Üniverse is about as funky as I could ever get. I wanted to hand-play as many parts as possible. The only things that are sequenced are the drums (Oberheim DMX), Disco Toms (Arp Axxe) and the bassline (Octave Kitten). All other parts are hand-played. That includes chords, pads and square wave lead (Juno-60) and Mono/Poly (Poly Chord lead). The Mono/Poly lead was especially tricky to do. I wanted to play it with a set (composed) beginning and then improvise as I go. It took me a lot of attempts to end up with a satisfactory result. I played the Mono/Poly using its Poly Chord mode (see Mono/Poly section above) and twiddled the cutoff knob as I was playing. I routed the Mono/Poly´s output through the Vermona Phaser 80 to give it that nice funky sizzling top-end modulation. I also added some short Korg SDD-1200 stereo delay, giving a nice slap-echo, almost room reverb type of effect.
The Juno-60 chords were also real fiddly to do but I will spare you the messy details here. Oberheim DMX and Roland CSQ-600 sequencer driving the Octave Kitten (bassline) were fun to program. They make a really nice rhythm section with precise and tight timing. Great combo.

Flight of the Astro Kitten

This was the first track I recorded for the album. I still had lots of creative energy from the recording sessions with Tvnel when I started recording the track. A couple of days prior to my first solo day in the studio a synthesizer that I had just bought online was shipped to me: The Octave Kitten! It took ages to arrive due to the postal service and DHL strike in Germany at the time. Originally I had intended to use the Kitten for the Tvnel sessions but as fate had it, it arrived right when Tvnel left! Anyway, after fixing a minor keyboard issue (J-wires gone loose during shipment), the little Kitten was all ready to go and willing to spit out some nice ballsy synth sounds for my Astro Chicken studio. The first track I recorded was all inspired by the newly acquired Kitten (yes, new gear IS an inspiration to me!). The Kitten also gave this track its name, which is: "Flight of the Astro Kitten"!
I used the Kitten for the sequence in the beginning and end, for the lead sound that pops up twice during the track, and for the bassline. In fact, I was so blown away by the quality of the Kitten´s bass sound that I used it for ALL the basslines on the "Terrör of the Üniverse" album. Yes, all basses are Octave Kitten basses.

Lament for My Eta Carine

This one was quite challenging. "Lament for My Eta Carinae" is based on an older track that was originally a demo for a drum sample pack. You can still find it online if you try. It took me a lot of work to get the Rhodes-style E-Piano sound right on the Juno-60. Wanting to hand-play the chords added another level of difficulty. In the first part of the track I played the chords live, as I wanted to get these little arpeggiated chords and irregularities that make up a lively piano performance. The later E-piano parts in the track were too complicated to play the way they sound, so I used a trick: I took the Korg Polysix and programmed the chords I wanted to play into its Poly Chord mode. I then routed the Polysix´s MIDI out to my Juno-60´s MIDI in and remote-played the Juno via the Polysix. So, on the Polysix I only had to play single notes, and the Juno-60 played triads! This way I was able to hand-play the difficult parts on the Juno-60 with some help of her brother: The Polysix!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Hyboid - Marauder Joe´s Adventures in Space ("Terrör of the Üniverse" 2x12" Album Teaser)

After quite some time I am reporting for blog duty again. I was really busy recording tracks, and .... drum roll...

I am proud to announce the upcoming 2x12" vinyl album "Hyboid - Terrör of the Üniverse"! It will be released in spring 2016 on my label Astro Chicken. There will be a whopping 12 tracks on the album, amounting to over 53 minutes of pure space age synthpop, soundtrack madness and some chiptuney vibes as well! More details about the album and how it was born are due in a couple of months, so stay tuned!
For now, enjoy the teaser. The track is called "Marauder Joe´s Adventures in Space":

Let me give you a couple of technical details about the track. The bassline is purely Octave Kitten, driven by my Roland CSQ-600 sequencer, clocked to 16th triggers from my Doepfer modular. The chord pattern on the Korg Polysix was done using the polychord mode which is part of the Tubbutec Mody/Poly modification. This mode allows you to map individual chords (up to 6 voices since the Polysix has 6 voices) to individual keys / notes. So you can play complex chord progressions just by playing single keys on the Polysix keyboard. Now here's the trick: Since the Mody/Poly mod also features a step sequencer, you can now sequence chord progressions rhythmically and have them play in a loop if you want. That's just what I did on this track. There's a bit of Deltalab Effectron JR1050 delay on the chords, as well as some reverb from the Dynacord DRP-20.

The Mono/Poly lead is hand-played and really simple. Just a single squarewave with some vibrato and filter envelope. That's all. Ah yes, some delay from Lexicon LXP-1 and Korg SDD-1200 to make it nice and round.

The Arp Axxe lead is also hand-played. Also squarewave with some portamento. I pressed the PPC button for some vibrato as I played. Some Korg SDD-1200 delay here as well.

The Roland Juno-60 arpeggio is hand-triggered with a free-running fast arpeggiator clock. This makes it practically impossible to repeat the arpeggios exactly the same way. This way you get some nice variation.

The drums are really simple, the explanation in the video tells you which comes when. I added some Roland SRV-2000 reverb to the clap, actually it is more of an ambience than a real reverb.

Well, that's about it. As I said, more details (and lots of them) will come at a later time. I am talking in-depth description of the whole album thingie and how it came into existence.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Roland TR-606, Juno-60, SH-09 & CSQ-600

It took me forever to get my hands on a 606. Now at last I did it, on a whim. In earlier years (speaking of the 90s and early 00s) I was highly suspicious of everything pre-MIDI. How the heck are you going to sync an old drummachine to a DAW the way you do it with MIDI sound generators? Naaa... go away. That was my way of thinking. Getting an 808 for a couple of hundred bucks: Gone are the days. The 606 is still super-affordable in comparison. So, anyway, my way of seeing CV and DIN sync and analog clock and whatnot has changed drastically in the last, say, 5 years. I have acquired quite a bit of vintage stuff since then. I doubt if I can say anything about the 606 that hasn't been mentioned before. Hey, it's a legend alright!

Roland TR-606 + Roland SRV-2000

Taking my newly purchased 606 on a test drive I ended up with this little track showcasing the fun you can have using its trigger outputs to drive an arpeggiator. In this case I am triggering my Juno-60's arpeggiator with triggers from the 606's High Tom channel. The great thing about rhythmically triggering an arpeggiator is that you can create interesting patterns that don't necessarily repeat (at least not right away), Instant fun!
For the technical details: 606 is being synced by a Roland CSQ-600 CV/Gate sequencer. The CSQ-600 has a DIN sync output so it can sync other TR machines or sequencers while being the master. Here the CSQ-600 not only slaves the 606 but also drives a Roland SH-09 for the bassline of the track. SH-09 and CSQ-600 are a perfect couple. They were practically made for each other. So much fun. There is a tiny bit of Roland SRV-2000 reverb on the TR-606 signal. Other than that, no audio processing.
Enjoy this little demo track!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Ladik S-180, S-181, S-182 & S-183 Sequencer Family Review + Demos (Youtube Videos)

During the past months I have purchased quite a lot of Ladik modules for my Eurorack modular system. The beating heart of my system is a combo of several of Ladik's sequencer modules. Let me give you an overview of Ladik's sequencer line:

S-180 8-Step Trigger Sequencer (4HP)
S-181 Individual outputs for each of S-180's steps (4HP)
S-182 CV outputs for each of S-180's steps, with small trim pots (4HP)
S-183 CV outputs for each of S-180's steps  with regular pots and step-LEDs (8HP)

Ladik S-180, S-181, S-182 & S-183 Sequencer System
Ladik S-180, S-181, S-182 & S-183 Sequencer System

Now let's go into the messy details:

Ladik S-180

The "mother unit" of all Ladik sequencing modules! The S-180 is an 8-Step Trigger Sequencer with a width of 4HP. It has 8 buttons and 8 LEDs (1 for every step). In order for the S-180 to run you have to feed it with a clock signal (for instance the square wave of an LFO) or triggers or gate signals through its "CLK IN" jack. The steps run from the top (step 1) to bottom (step 8) and then start again at the top. Of course there are other sequencing modes (the order in which the steps are running) but I will go into these later. You use the buttons to activate and deactivate the steps by pressing the step buttons for a short time. A fully lit LED indicates that a step is activated (= outputs a trigger signal at that step), while a half-lit LED shows the current step while the sequencer is running.
Simple as that!
You can change the sequence length between 2 and 8 steps on the fly (while the sequence is running) by pressing the corresponding step key for about 1 second. Cycling through the different sequencing modes is easy: Simply press button 1 repeatedly for about 1s and choose the desired mode. Changing the sequencing mode during play can cause short hick-ups but once it has been changed the S-180 continues running as if nothing has happened.

Originally the S-180 had 3 modes of operation (sequencing modes):

1. Up: Cycling from first to last step
2. Up/Down (Pendulum): Cycling between first and last step with repeating first and last step
3. Random: All steps are triggered after one another in random order, with the possibility of a step getting triggered repeatedly

I requested 2 more sequencing modes and Ladik was so kind to implement them. These are:

4. Random with non-repeating steps: This means that still all steps are played in random order, but with the refinement that no step is allowed to be played more than once in a row. This makes for some nice options. You can for example use it for a pseudo Sample & Hold effect using the daughter-boards S-182 or S-183.
5. Up/Down (Pendulum) with non-repeating first and last step. A must-have in my opinion!

Now you may wonder what sense does mode 4 make if you use S-180 purely as a trigger sequencer? As you won't hear a difference to mode 3? Yes, mode 4 makes sense in combination with the daughter-modules S-182 and S-183 which add CV outputs to the S-180, turning it into a proper step sequencer. I will go into that later.

So, now we have learned that you can alter the sequence length and sequencing modes during operation. What else can we edit on the fly? Depending on how you have set up the S-180 button 2 either sets your sequence length to 2 steps or it sends a manual reset to the S-180, setting it either to the last step of the sequence or instantly to step 1 (this is user-selectable upon turning on the unit).
Next, there is the option of saving your sequencer's current status (including sequencing mode, sequence length and activated / deactivated steps) by pressing buttons 3 and 4 simultaneously. Note that you have to manually save the current status, otherwise the S-180 will restart with default settings or with the last status that you saved.
And last, you can advance the S-180 step by step by holding buttons 7 and 8 together.

Several settings can be customized by pressing a certain button upon power-up. These settings address things like trigger length and reset behavior. You can look up these settings at Ladik's product page for the S-180 (

Now let's talk resets. You might think that a sequencer with only 8 steps is a boring affair ("hey, I need 16 or 32 steps!"). Think twice. First of all you have all these nifty sequencing modes that give you quite some variation. But what really makes a sequencer musically interesting is resets. The S-180 has two reset modes: The first mode sends the S-180 to the last step of your sequence when a reset is sensed at the "RST IN" jack so the following clock pulse will set the sequencer back to step 1. This is the appropriate mode if you are using the sequencer in a more "composition-style" environment, for example if you are syncing your modular system to a DAW and want to record a take starting from the first beat in a bar. You simply reset the S-180 either by button press (button 2) or by a trigger or gate signal into its "RST IN" jack, then start your DAW or master sequencer and off you go: S-180 will start on step 1 just as you wanted.
But what if you want to reset your S-180 instantaneously to step 1, say, by sending a trigger signal from another sequencer, a clock divider or a gate signal (for example from your master keyboard via MIDI-CV-Gate converter?). 
Then the "reset to last step" mode is not what you want. That is why Ladik has added another reset mode to the S-180's firmware: instantaneous reset. Now you can "play" the S-180's first step by sending it a trigger or gate signal to its "RST IN" jack and the sequencer will always immediately jump to step 1. Now if you take one S-180 and use its trigger output to rhythmically reset another S-180 then you have already opened up Pandora's Box of possibilities. This way you can get lots of variations from 2 simple 8-step sequencers. I highly recommend getting at least 2 S-180s!
Now it gets even more technical: The S-180 has two modes of implementing resets:
1. "Edge driven": This means that the rising edge of the reset signal sets the S-180 to the last or first step (depending on your setting). So if you send a gate signal to the reset input, only the rising edge makes the difference. The rest of the gate phase will be ignored. This mode is useful if you just want to reset the sequence to step 1 without holding it there for a longer time. Because this is what happens in mode...
2. "Level driven": In this mode the reset is active while the "RST IN" input receives a "high state" by a gate signal, an LFO, a Sample & Hold, a Joystick or whatever module can output CVs. While the reset is active, all clock signals present at S-180's "CLK IN" input are ignored. This mode is great if you want to "freeze" the sequencer on step 1 as long as the reset signal is high. 

If you experience skipping or unreliable reset behavior in reset mode 1 ("edge driven") it might be due to the reset trigger arriving just a bit earlier than the clock signal. This will cause the sequencer to remain on step 1 just for a fraction of a second before advancing to step 2. This can be remedied by delaying the reset trigger by a tiny amount or simply by using reset mode 2 ("level driven") which will ignore the clock impulse while the reset trigger is present at the "RST IN" input (provided the reset trigger signal is long enough).
I have had great results with reset mode 2 ("level driven"). Works perfectly for me.

Summing up, Ladik S-180 is a real powerhouse for a small price and small footprint (only 4HP). Plus it can double as a clock divider, too. Great ease of use, plenty of sequencing modes and great looks! 

Ladik S-181 

A very simple module that only works in conjunction with the S-180. It is a daughter-module that is connected to the S-180 or daisy-chained to a S-182 or S-183 with a small ribbon cable. What does it do? It provides 8 individual outputs for the S-180's trigger signals, one output for each step. That means that when step 1 is active on S-180, S-181 daughter module will output a trigger signal on output 1. Likewise for all other steps / outputs. It is in principle what the Doepfer A-161 is to the A-160.
What is it good for? Well, let's suppose you want to trigger an envelope generator on step 1, retrigger an LFO on step 3, reset a clock divider on step 4 and advance another sequencer on step 6: You can do all of the above with the S-181. Simply connect the corresponding S-181 outputs with the destinations on your other modules. This way you can get nice rhythmical interactions with the rest of your modular system.
You can select the length of the trigger signals output from your S-181 by configuring the corresponding settings on your S-180 mother module. Either 1ms triggers or full-length gate signals are available. 
One little nitpick: I wish the S-181 had LEDs for each output. Maybe at a later time there will be a revision with LED's? Other than that a simple but useful module at a small price.

Ladik S-182

Here we have a really nice addition to the S-180 that turns it from a mere trigger sequencer to a CV step sequencer. A small footprint (4HP) CV output extension with small trim pots. The S-182 connects to the S-180 mother module or daisy-chains to another S-182 or S-183 with a small ribbon cable. In contrast to the S-181 the S-182 has its own power connector.
By the way, longer ribbon cables are available on request, just in case you want to position all these pretty daughter-modules further away from each other.
For every step that is active on the S-180 mother module, the S-182 puts out a CV that is set with a small trim pot for each step. In addition to the 8 CV trim pots there is also a range trim pot on the bottom of the module which serves as an attenuator for all 8 CV altogether.
The trim pots on the S-182 are just that: trim pots. Don't expect them to operate as smoothly as a full-fledged potentiometer. For CVing all kinds of modulation destinations the trim pots are accurate enough. In conjunction with a quantizer (Doepfer A-156 or Ladik Q-010) I have gotten good and accurate results pitch-modulating my VCOs. No worries here! Without a quantizer hitting the right pitch might require some patience but once set, the trimmers work accurately.
Again, a very small and useful addition to your S-180 sequencing system!

Ladik S-183

This is the luxury alternative to the S-182. Slightly wider (8HP instead of 4HP) but with full-size potentiometers with smooth action plus individual LEDs indicating the current step.
Like on the S-182 we get a range pot acting as a main attenuator for all steps. But additionally, further setting itself apart from the more simple S-182 here we also get a transpose knob, offsetting the CV by a manual amount and even externally CV-able via the Transpose input jack! Now we can modulate the CVs that are output by the S-183 externally by another CV. Very cool feature!
The pots used on this module are the same that can be found on other Ladik modules. They are very precise and have a firm action. Well-suited for pitch modulation and all other sorts of CV modulation of course.
I prefer the S-183 over the S-182 but if space is an issue you might want to consider the S-182 instead.


With his S-180 + S-181 + S-182 + S-183 modules, Ladik gives you the very atomic building blocks of a sequencer to customize your own sequencing system. This is modular philosophy to the bone. Hint: There is also the Ladik S-190 Clock Distributor module available which gives you interesting and unusual clocking options if you are using multiple S-180 combos.
Closing words: Build quality is high, prices are affordable. If you are looking for a sequencer for your Eurorack, check out Ladik! 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Cwejman VCO-2RM Dual Oscillator Review + Demo (Youtube Video)

Cwejman modules have gained the status of the holy grail of modular synthesis over the past few years. Recently I was offered to buy a VCO-2RM second hand for an OK price so jumped the opportunity and got my hands on it. I had tried some Cwejman modules before (including the VCO-2RM) at Schneiders in Berlin and was always intrigued by their classy and beautiful sound. I had read lots of good things about Cwejman stuff on the internet as well. Some critical voices tend to nitpick about the Cwejman sound being too sterile or clinical. I can understand what this criticism is about, as Cwejman really sounds very "precise" but I never saw this as a problem. If you want warm/fuzzy/overdriven sound you can still mangle your audio signal with distortion or waveshapers or whatever is available (and that's a lot!).

Briefly going through the VCO-2RM's features, it is a dual VCO with a wide frequency range (there is also an LFO mode available for both oscillators), 3 FM inputs for each oscillator (exponential FM only!), PWM, sync and a ring modulator. Since the ring modulator is  DC-coupled it can be used with CV signals, making it a VCA. Yes, you can use the VCO-2RM's ring modulator as a full-fledged audio VCA! I tried it, it works. Each VCO has 7 selectable waveforms available (everything from sine to pulse including some odd mixed waveforms). Each VCO can only output one waveform at a time. 

Cwejman VCO-2RM
Cwejman VCO-2RM Dual Oscillator

So how does it sound? Well, compared to the vintage oscillators I have experience with (Moog, ARP, Octave, Roland etc.) it strikes me as being "on the spot" as opposed to "warm and organic". So, depending on what you are after it might indeed be a touch "too controllable". Obviously the components Cwejman uses for his modules are so well-selected and precise that there is hardly any room for tolerances or random fluctuations. For me the VCO-2RM really shines once you start modulating it. Feed it with CVs from various sources, amplitude-modulate these CVs with VCAs, sequence everything, well... you will see (and hear) that the VCO-2RM really begs to be modulated, and the sonic possibilities opening up are infinite. As you tweak the VCO-2RM's knobs even a tiny bit of change can make a huge difference in timbre. What I love about it is that it covers everything from classical subtractive to experimental sounds. And did I mention the VCO-2RM tracks like a champ? Tune both oscillators to a specific interval and play them across multiple octaves. Voila! Stays in tune.
For my demo video I used both VCOs and the ring modulator sequenced and modulated by Doepfer A-155 sequencer, A-145 LFO, A-143-9 VC Quadrature LFO, A-140 Envelope Generator, A-149-1 Quantized/Stored Random Voltages, A-133 Dual VC Polarizer and A-183-2 offset generator. The mixed output of the VCO-2RM runs through a STG Soundlabs Sea Devils filter and in part through a Synthrotek Echo. Enjoy!

Friday, February 13, 2015

Ladik Modules Review + Demo (Youtube Video): K-010 Utility CV Keyboard, K-011 Trigger to Keyboard and S-030 4Ch Clockworks4

Modular synthesis, especially the Eurorack format, has seen a great revival in the recent years. Frequently new companies enter the market trying to participate in the Eurorack gold rush. One of these relatively new outfits is Ladik (, a one-man company from the Czech Republic. I first learned about him while browsing for analog drum synths on eBay a while ago when he was offering his Synare 3 drum synth clone. Meanwhile Ladik has been busy developing literally dozens of Eurorack modules sporting everything from oscillators, modulators, filters, clock and MIDI utilities and many more useful CV processing tools. A very prolific developer indeed. 
Now since Ladik mentioned in his eBay auctions that he could make custom modules on request I got the idea to suggest creating a tool that would be damn useful but has been strangely absent in the Eurorack world:

A mini CV/Gate keyboard for the Eurorack. Sometimes I just want to play a little melody or transpose a sequence or program my old Roland CSQ-600 CV/Gate sequencer. A small 8HP module with one octave of keys and CV and gate outputs would be such a practical tool for that. Why hasn't anybody come up with this idea before? I approached Ladik with my idea early in 2015 and from then on had a very inspiring Email conversation with him. He agreed to develop the keyboard module and even came up with an idea for an extension module allowing to remote-control all keys of the CV keyboard. So yesterday, only 5 weeks after I voiced my idea, I received a package from the Czech Republic containing the Ladik K-010 CV Utility Keyboard, Ladik K-011 Trigger to Keyboard Extension and Ladik S-030 4ch Clockworks4 clock divider module. That was quick!

Ladik K-010 CV Keyboard
Ladik K-010 CV Keyboard

Let me give you a tour of the K-010 CV Keyboard module. We have one octave range of keys from C to C. When you press a key, the corresponding CV is output at the CV out jack. Additionally, a gate signal is present at the Gate Out jack as long as you press the key. When you release the key, the gate turns off but the CV is still present at the CV output. Each note key has its own LED which lights up fully when pressed. When the key is released the LED becomes half-lit. This way you can still tell which key was pressed last and likewise which CV you are still outputting. Very practical! A pair of octave up / down switches allows for a range of 5 octaves. The octave LEDs give you visual feedback about which octave you are in. LED off means: You are in the center octave. Octave up LED half lit means: One octave up. LED fully lit: Two octaves up. Same with octave down respectively. Now since I didn't want the octave switch to transpose my CV immediately upon button press, I requested a mode where the octave change becomes active only after you press the next key. So Ladik implemented this option for me and it works like a charm! You can even skip several octaves before pressing the next note key and it still works like it should. Nice! Alternatively you can have the octave buttons act immediately when you press them. Another mode is called "Octave Temp" and means that when pressing the octave key the transposition takes place immediately AND when releasing the octave key it instantly jumps back to the middle octave. In this mode however you only have 3 octaves at your disposal. 
Furthermore you can select high or low note priority which determines which key takes precedence if more than one key is pressed simultaneously.
There are 2 trimpots on the K-010 allowing you to set the V/oct scaling and offset of the module. It took me about 1 minute to calibrate my K-010 to my liking. Piece of cake!

Ladik S-030 4Ch Clockworks4, Ladik K-010 CV Keyboard and Ladik K-011 Trigger to Keyboard Eurorack modules

Now for the K-011 Trigger to Keyboard extension module. This is basically a remote control for all the buttons on the K-010, even the octave up / down keys! It is connected to the K-010 via two ribbon cables and draws its power from the K-010 as well. You can mount both modules in whatever order you like, the ribbon cables are long enough both ways. It accepts trigger or gate signals, activating the corresponding notes (CV and gate) on the K-010 CV Keyboard module as long as the trigger / gate input is high.
Now what do we get out of this combo? Well, first of all we have a freakin' mini CV keyboard in our Eurorack which is absolutely amazing! Second, we can use the K-011 extension to sequence the keyboard on "note level" via trigger signals, divided clocks, random gates or whatever you choose to throw at it. The results you are getting can be very musical and possibly ever-evolving and never repeating if you please. 
As you can see (and hear) in my demo video, you can get really creative and come up with very simple but charming little melodies. Possibilities are endless!

Ladik S-030 4Ch Clockworks4

The Ladik S-030 4Ch Clockworks4 is a 4 channel clock divider with adjustable division ratio and trigger length per channel. We have have two pairs of channels. Each pair is clocked by a common input. Both inputs are normalled so you only have to connect one clock signal if you want all 4 channels to receive the same clock. Alternatively you can feed both pairs of channels with individual clock signals. You can even feed the output of one channel to the input of another channel to receive even greater division ratios. Speaking of division ratios: Each channel has 2 knobs. The first knob selects the ratio you wish the incoming clock signal to be divided by. Available factors are 1 to 12. You can tweak the division knob on the fly, changing the division ratio as you go. This of course makes it tricky to "hit the spot" when trying to align your divided signal with the original signal the way you want. But on the upside this gives you complete freedom over where "in time" your divided trigger signal is. The second knob adjusts the length of the resulting trigger signal. That's very handy since you now have complete control over the "pulse widht" of the resulting trigger or gate signal. This is especially useful when you are working with ADSR envelope generators since these want a longer trigger in order to reach their sustain stage.
Now what if you set the channel's trigger length parameter to a length greater than the incoming clock intervals? Well, in that case all incoming triggers are skipped until the end of your channel's trigger has been reached. This way you can use the trigger length parameter as an additional clock divider if you like.
The S-030 Clockworks4 is an extremely useful, feature-packed tool that I am sure will be essential for my clocking duties in the future. Build quality is great by the way. Knobs are firm and smooth, jacks are firm enough and easy to operate. And I really like the design which is utilitarian but very pretty.

It is a strange thing that Ladik, given his wide range of over 60 (!!!) cleverly designed and useful modules, has not achieved more popularity. I hope that anyone interested in modular synthesis reads this review, watches this demo and goes about discovering the colorful world of Ladik Eurorack modules!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

STG Soundlabs Sea Devils Filter Demo

Play MP3 clip: STG_Sea_Devils_Filter_Demo.mp3

During my last visit to Schneidersladen in Berlin I scored a very nice module from the bargain bin: An STG Soundlabs Sea Devils Filter. It is a three pole (18dB slope) diode ladder lowpass filter with signal input, ouput, 3 filter CV inputs (one with attenuator) and resonance CV. While testing this module at Schneiders I was really impressed by its character. It is both fat and vintage sounding as well as really precise in its response to external CV modulation. It reacts gorgeously to sequencer lines, envelopes and LFOs. It does however get quite growly with audio-rate filter CV modulation. Anyway, with low resonance you get a monolithic, huge sounding bottom end. Cranking up the resonance results in wonderfully "plucky" sounds, and as soon as resonance reaches self-oscillation you end up in creamy & bubbly acidic musical territory. This filter has so many sweet spots it's a real pleasure to use. Build quality is excellent. The knobs are large and sturdy and have a firm yet smooth action. I can say I am really happy I got this module.

STG Soundlabs Sea Devils Filter

For this demo I took my trusted MFB Kraftzwerg's 3 VCOs, tuned them two octaves apart and pitch-modulated them with MFB Megazwerg's 4-step CV sequencer. This sequence is getting some random transposition via Doepfer A-149-1. The 3 VCOs were then fed into the Sea Devils' input. To modulate the Sea Devils' filter cutoff frequency I used a mix of different CV sources: Electro Harmonix 8-Step Sequencer, Doepfer A-140 ADSR Envelope, Doepfer A-171-2 VC Slew Processor plus some manual tweaking. The Sea Devils' output was then fed through the MFB Megazwerg's delay. No other FX or EQ'ing was used.
In the beginning resonance ("response") is set to zero. I gradually turn up the resonance until the filter starts self oscillating at the end of the demo.