Remoticon Video: Intro To Modern Synthesis Using VCV Rack

Modular synthesizers, with their profusion of knobs and switches and their seemingly insatiable appetite for patch cables, are wonderful examples of over-complexity — the best kind of complexity, in our view. Play with a synthesizer long enough and you start thinking that any kind of sound is possible, limited only by your imagination in hooking up the various oscillators, filters, and envelope generators. And the aforementioned patch cables, of course, which are always in short supply.

Luckily, though, patch cables and the modules they connect can be virtualized, and in his 2020 Remoticon workshop, Jonathan Foote showed us all the ways VCV Rack can emulate modular synthesizers right on your computer’s desktop. The workshop focused on VCV Rack, where Eurorack-style synthesizer modules are graphically presented in a configurable rack and patched together just like physical synth modules would be.

John started out with a simple example using the most basic of synth modules: a voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO), a voltage-controlled filter (VCF), and an envelope generator. Along with a few housekeeping modules to drive the computer’s soundcard and to use the keyboard as, well, a keyboard, participants were able to quickly assemble their virtual synthesizers. More complex instruments can be built up from literally thousands of available modules — some free, some open source, and some premium modules available for a reasonable price.

Hats off to Jonathan for a great workshop and handling my off-the-cuff question about reproducing the “Sound of the 80s” question with aplomb. It turned out not to be possible with the stock VCV Rack modules, but it still reminded us a bit of the gated reverb drum sound of “In the Air Tonight” and other classics. Make sure you check out not only the video of the workshop but the workshop page too, which has all the details you need to get started with your own virtual synthesizer.

10 thoughts on “Remoticon Video: Intro To Modern Synthesis Using VCV Rack

  1. I read up on it. VST, no thanks. I like the modular and patching, but I don’t have time for a DAW. Maybe if it was standalone and here I include offline use. I use ZynAddSubFX, a tongue and type twisting name for sure. Free of course, Linux and the rest. It goes back to the middle aughts so it will run on anything. On a powerful computer it just lets you layer and layer more sounds. It’s only drawback is little alterable patching, but it still can do a lot. I especially like the 128 drawbars to build sounds on.

    1. VCV Rack is completely standalone, and open-source; most modules are likewise. To the best of my knowledge, you only need network access to download/update modules.

      There are purchasable modules, including one that lets you run VST modules inside VCV Rack. There is a planned VST version, that will cost money, but you don’t currently need a DAW for it — indeed, one of the drawbacks of using it at present is the difficulty of integrating it with other sound software.

      (I’ve run VCV Rack on both a modern budget gaming PC (Win10) and a circa-2010 Linux laptop.)

      If you researched a VST-based Eurorack simulator, you may be thinking of Cherry Audio’s Voltage Modular, which is professionally supported payware but has a minimal “Nucleus” free version.

  2. Indeed, VCV Rack is a DAW, and the closest one to an analog audio workstation you can find.
    Of course there is much to be said about this product, it’s biggest strengths are in use as i mentioned as a “huge mixing board”, or as a West Coast style synthesis playground. For big 80’s, East Coast modular, look at Cherry Audio Voltage Modular, its a bit more expensive to get the good stuff with it, but its less than getting a VCA and a logic module hardware, foe example.

  3. Dan – thanks for moderating this. Just finished watching the whole thing. I’m not a musician but am enthused enough by what Jonathan showed us to download and start exploring with VCV Rack. Thanks!

  4. Thanks much for this. I’d never heard of the VCV Rack project. So this is my toy for christmas :-)

    Let me share another free virtual synth toy. Patchblocks was a kickstarter featuring a tiny hardware DSP-based synth module (It’s cool, I have one). It’s programmed in a Windows/Mac application, then downloaded via USB to the module, which then becomes a free-standing little instrument/processor/whatever.

    They were bought out and the hardware is no longer made, but the applications are still available and include an emulator. Check it out…

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