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.

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Hacked Prosthesis Leads To Mind-Controlled Electronic Music

As amazing as prosthetic limbs have become, and as life-changing as they can be for the wearer, they’re still far from perfect. Prosthetic hands, for instance, often lack the precise control needed for fine tasks. That’s a problem for [Bertolt Meyer], an electronic musician with a passion for synthesizers with tiny knobs, a problem he solved by hacking his prosthetic arm to control synthesizers with his mind. (Video, embedded below.)

If that sounds overwrought, it’s not; [Bertolt]’s lower arm prosthesis is electromyographically (EMG) controlled through electrodes placed on the skin of his residual limb. In normal use, he can control the servos inside the hand simply by thinking about moving muscles. After experimenting a bit with an old hand, he discovered that the amplifiers in the prosthesis could produce a proportional control signal based on his inputs, and with a little help from synthesizer manufacturer KOMA Electronik, he came up with a circuit that can replace his hand and generate multiple control voltage channels. Plugged into any of the CV jacks on his Eurorack modular synths, he now has direct mind control of his music.

We have to say this is a pretty slick hack, and hats off to [Bertolt] for being willing to do the experiments and for enlisting the right expertise to get the job done. Interested in the potential for EMG control? Of course there’s a dev board for that, and [Bil Herd]’s EMG signal processing primer should prove helpful as well.

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DIY Teensy Looper Multiplies Music

If you’re into electronic music, chances are good that you like to roll your own. While step one is usually to build something, anything that makes sound, a natural step two is to build a looping device to extend and play with those sounds.

[Cutlasses] has finished version one of his Teensy-based Eurorack-style looper. He plugs in a thing, records some tunes, and the resulting loop gets divvied up into eight equal pieces. He can cut the loop together live using the eight buttons to jump around between sections. It supports unlimited overdubs, although too many will cause clipping. But hey, that just means free derivative sounds.

The looper records its audio to an SD card. Since this is typically a slow endeavor, [Cutlasses] used two circular buffers. One reads audio, and the other writes it. This took a lot of trial and error, which he may have to repeat with future SD cards.

[Cutlasses]’ plans for future versions include a separate audio CODEC for better sound, CV control, and a pedal option for hands-free operation. We’d love to hear some sweet Theremin loopage, wouldn’t you? Jog past the break to watch [Cutlasses] demo his looper with a kalimba and a DIY noise box that uses a string bow to make metal tines sing.

Feeling out of the music-making loop? There are (slightly) easier ways. Check out this LEGO looper or this multiplayer Pi-ano.

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Eurorack Gets A Wireless MIDI Connection

Modular synthesizers have been around since the early 1960s, delivering huge tonal possibilities from their impressive and imposing patchbays. In 1996, the Eurorack standard was launched, and has become the go-to choice for enthusiasts new to the world of modular synthesis. [Rich Heslip] is just one such enthusiast, and has brought Bluetooth MIDI to Eurorack with his Motivation Radio module.

[Rich]’s module is built around the ESP32, which provides plenty of processing power, along with all the necessary radio hardware to communicate over Bluetooth. The unit packs plenty of connectivity into an 8HP wide panel, with four gate inputs and outputs, four CV inputs and outputs, and serial MIDI in and out.

Thanks to its Bluetooth connection, Motivation Radio makes it easy to pass note and gate data into a Eurorack setup, and can be used with the wide variety of tablet and smartphone MIDI software on offer. If you’re eager to build your own, PCB and panel designs are available courtesy of [jakplugg] and [Rich] has shared the software on Github.

Of course, if you prefer MIDI over USB, [little-scale] has the build for you. Video after the break.

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An Easy Way To MIDI Sync Your Eurorack Build

Eurorack synthesizer builds are known for a lot of things; simplicity isn’t necessarily one of them. However, not everything on a modular synthesizer build has to be inordinately complicated, a mess of wires, or difficult to understand. [little-scale] has built a neat and tidy module that might just find a place in your setup – the Chromatic Drum Gate Sync. The handy little device is based on a Teensy, and uses its USB MIDI libraries to make synchronizing hardware a snap.

The device has 12 channels, each responding to a single MIDI note. A note on message is used to set a gate high, and a note off message to set it low again. This allows very fine grained control of gates in a modular setup. The device can also output a variety of sync signals controlled by the USB MIDI clock – useful for keeping your modular rack in time with other digitally controlled synths.

It’s a build that espouses [little-scale]’s usual aesthetic – clean and tidy, with a focus on compactness. All the required details to build your own are available on Github.

We’ve seen the collision of [little-scale] and Teensy hardware before – with this rig playing 8 SEGA soundchips in unison.

Mechanizing A Eurorack Sequencer

Eurorack has taken over the synthesizer community, and hundreds of people are building their own eurorack modules. [Michael Forrest] designed and built his own Eurorack sequencer module that doesn’t use weird things like capacitors and chips to store a signal. Instead, he’s doing it with stepper motors and some clever engineering.

The basic idea of a Eurorack sequencer is to somehow store a series of values and play them back repeatedly. Connect that sequence to a clock, and you get the same pattern of sounds out of your synth. This can be done digitally with a circular buffer, in the analog domain with a bunch of FETs and caps, or in this case, on a piece of paper glued to a stepper motor.

The key bit of mechanism for this build is a stepper motor with 96 steps per rotation. This is important, because the module is controlled by a clock pulse from the sequencer. Since 96 is evenly divisible by 8 and 16, that means this sequencer will play back in 4/4 time. That NEMA 17 motor with 200 steps per resolution simply won’t work in this situation. Rather, it will technically work, but it’ll be unusable.

The electronics for this build are surprisingly simple, with an Arduino taking in the clock pulse and sending the step signals to an H-driver. The motor spins a paper disk, which is read with a photoresistor and a LED. It’s simple enough to be fun, and yes, it is mounted to a proper Eurorack-sized panel. You can check out the video of this build below.

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The Coolest Electronic Toys You’ll See At NAMM

Winter NAMM is the world’s largest trade show for musical instrument makers. It is a gear head’s paradise, filled to the brim with guitars, synths, amps, MIDI controllers, an impossibly loud section filled with drums, ukuleles, and all sorts of electronic noisemakers that generate bleeps and bloops. Think of it as CES, only with products people want to buy. We’re reporting no one has yet stuffed Alexa into a guitar pedal, by the way.

As with all trade shows, the newest gear is out, and it’s full of tech that will make your head spin. NAMM is the expression of an entire industry, and with that comes technical innovation. What was the coolest, newest stuff at NAMM? And what can hackers learn from big industry? There’s some cool stuff here, and a surprising amount we can use.

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