Erica Synths unleashes its hybrid monster tube-oscillator

Last year I still had to introduce Erica Synths to people. It has become obsolete this year. No wonder, since the Eastern-European company provides us with excellently built and designed multi-functional modules at great speed with no issues regarding quality! Look, they have just upgraded their fusion series!
Erica Synths - Fusion VCO
Erica Synths – Fusion VCO

A VCO? Actually, we are talking about 3 VCO’s: one wavetable / digital VCO which offers stable basic waveshapes which can morph into each other, and 2 tube-based sub oscillators empowered with a lowpass filter.

The thing I have always liked in the Erica Synths fusion tube modules is that they are not meant to go crazy. They add a decent empowerment to the whole sound of a particular patch. Sub-oscillators would be typically square-waves, here they can be rounded off with internal filtering and waveshaping as well. A pretty “all in one” concept, like a Bateleur VCO. You will not need further adjustments to “get that oscillator right”. If you don’t like the sound or get a little bored with it, an external audio input is also available.
Listen:

 As for the other Delay/Flange Ensemble has not got a dedicated demo yet. We will be waiting for it. Having heard Erica fusion chorus/delay modules live already, I have to say that they do their musical job very decently. Looking forward to test these in the Analogue Zone showroom!
Read our interview with Girts, one of the men behind Erica Synths!

"Never before seen" electronic music circuits - Paul T. Schreiber (Synthesis Technology)-interview

Paul T. Schreiber, the man behind Synthesis Technology is a man who you might want to talk to first when you become a eurorack manufacturer. Or when you start DIY-ing a difficult project. Or when you just want to have an insight on instrument-design. He is a great storyteller as well, and has created a lot of truly innovative tools which brought synthesis forward, so we were happy to start a conversation with him.

I’d like to know what made you start working on one of your latest modules, the Quand Temporal Shifter. I’d like to also know what sorts of electronic music you are thinking about – if any, when you are designing your products. Or is that just „pure” music theory?
Paul T. Schreiber of Synthesis Technology (photo: wiretotheear.com)
Paul T. Schreiber of Synthesis Technology (photo: wiretotheear.com)

Way back in 1979 I was thinking about using some ’fancy’ sample & hold parts from a company called PMI (I think they were bought by Analog Devices a few years later). Anyway, these chips were used by my employer (Data General) but were really expensive back then, like $12ea . However, they were very very good and I managed to get 3 samples from them. I was designing some digital VCOs and a clone of the Eventide Harmonizer when I got bored at work, and these chips were for the harmonizer’s de-glitcher in the DACs. I had seen pictures of the Serge ASR, and so I breadboarded up a 3-stage one using these samples. It worked great, but I thought to myself: the droop is still an issue, why not do it with A/Ds and D/As instead and make a ’perfect’ one? Well, the harmonizer clone had a ’really good’ 12-bit A/D that my boss got as a sample, but it was $48ea. The D/As were about $19ea. Processors were relatively cheap, we had drawers of 6502 chips. But to build a full digital ASR back then was about a month’s pay.

I also use musicians that I know and trust that will not just auto-approve anything I do, in fact I *want them* to say „this flat out sucks” if it does, or tell me „the range on this control is not useful”. The last thing I want to do is release products and then go through what seems to the users an endless cycle of firmware updates.

synth-tech-logoI try not to ’over-think’ the musical context for my designs, above a basic level (this is a LFO, etc). I’m 60yrs old, grew up in the Wendy Carlos/ELP period but now mainly listen to ambient music (Robert Rich is a big influence and contributor). I’m not very ’musical’ myself, although I studied pipe organ a bit but decided it was more fun to build them than to play them (in fact, my design partner’s father is a famous pipe organ builder). I think places like Facebook forums is good idea to get feedback, although you have to apply a lot of filtering sometimes. I do a lot of beta testing, 3-4 months is not unusual, to have up to 6 different people with very wide musical styles comment ton a modules before I ship it.

Lately, some prices got better, and some competitive aspects got worse. The latest flood of eurorack modules has made „hoping for the best” harder as the market has changed, hasn’t it?

I don’t think so, there is always this portion of any product (not just a Euro module) that has this chance to really take off. When I was a kid, this guy put a small rock in a cute box and called it a Pet Rock. He sold MILLIONS of them. You just never know it any product becomes a “hit” or not. Same is true releasing music. But we still keep doing it 🙂

Paul's workshop
Paul’s workshop

A few years ago on the Muffwiggler forum some people were talking about the lack of ASR’s (i.e. analog shift registers – the editor) (the Serge analog version, with the droop issue) and whining there were not any good ones. So I decided to show them exactly what a ’good one’ would do! The E102 uses true 14-bit accurate A/D and D/As along with true 14-bit level shifting, which is not easy or cheap. But thankfully it’s also not a month’s salary to build! And since the logic needed to do the basic function only required 10% of the total program memory of the microcontroller, we decided to add the voltage-controlled delay between the taps, something never done defore.

This is a hallmark of a SynthTech design: we try to add something never before seen in either HW or plug-ins. This leads into the 2nd part of the question: how do we ’decide’ what to build? And then ’how to build it’?

The fair answer is about 80% market research and 20% „hoping for the best”. It is hard to predict what is a big hit, although in my little corner of the market, I do not try to get close to the number of modules shipped by say Doepfer or Mutable. Rather, I try to approach it as „What is missing that I know how to add value to it?”. Value can mean several things: better audio quality, a new feature (like The E340 Cloud Generator) or a feature that we greatly improve on (the morphing algorithm in the E350).

What made you release a MIDI CV interface as well for example? I mean almost every manufacturer has one now nowadays.
Paul T. Schreiber at NAMM showing the Quad Temporal Shifter and the E620 MIDI-USB interface
Paul T. Schreiber at NAMM showing the Quad Temporal Shifter and the E620 MIDI-USB interface

No one to date has one with both USB Host and Device. Doing a Device is easy, but that requires connecting to a computer. The Host part, now that is very difficult in terms of both the HW needed and the USB stack, which is probably 4 *times* the complexity/size of a Device stack. The E620 was put on hold because of my time, but we will ship by the end of the year. I still do not know of anything like the E620 on the market: you are talking about years of development to do it properly. USB is non-trival!

How do you see the latest developments / generations of eurorack modules with plenty of functionality, digital elements like the Disting or other DSP tools?

It’s always nice to see people play catch-up with me (grin). I think what has happened is that the casual hobbiest manufacturer (the majority) have reached an ’end of the Google’ problem: they can’t find any more schematics or service manuals to copy from. It’s all been done to death. So going forward, the innovation will be coming from the trained EE’s that know how to code in DSP and design higher end analog because this stuff just isn’t laying around on the web. You have to know it first. Sure, people have already started buying little development boards and bolting them to a front panel,

I’m surprised no one has stuck on an iPad by now. But this is never cost effective or power-effective. The power consumption of some of these modules is staggering, 100s of milliamps from the +12V rail.

For SynthTech, we plan to offer DSP and 100% analog modules. It’s just REALLY hard to do decent VCFs in DSP. Over last few years, many really fast ARM processors with large memories have been released. Microchip still has the best user libraries to speed code development. We are not “DSP snobs”, we choose the best part for the module in use.

image_34958
One of the most famous wavetable VCO’s made by SyntTech – The keyed header is there too.

My biggest concern, one that I’m known for on the forums, is the lack of power supply knowledge in Euro. Something as simple as marking where the red stripe goes on a pc board somewhow escapes many of these so called „module designers”. I’m not trying to demean anyone: I’m trying to get everyone on the same page for the customers. Euro manufacturers need to rasise the bar: I try to raise it on every module I design. In fact my new low-cost VCO design I’m doing, called the E330 Multi-Mode VCO, has „The red sripe is -12V and goes here” on the silkscreen. My father used to print catalogs, and he had a big sign in his office that said „INK IS FREE”. The point is: why not put this on the board? It costs YOU nothing, but think of the help it is to your customers. I hear suff like „Well, there is no room on my board” to which I say „Then MAKE ROOM”. I view it as being willfully lazy and sloppy. Why is Euro so inconsistent? What other comsumer electronic family is this way? Put yourself in the customer’s place.

Also, the issue of not using shrouded, keyed headers. I know Doepfer has lead the charge, but that was initially a cost issue and really, you can source Asian shrouded connectors that are maybe $0.23 more than unshrouded. I think this is a small price to pay.

A lot of users ask questions about standards (and realise that there are no such stuff). Also, another issue is build quality. You tend to take the finest components when you build a module. Do you think that people – either users or makers – will be able to see as bad quality pots, switches, jacks may go wrong?

It’s not a matter of ‘being wrong’. There is always a tradeoff in any design for cost versus quality of parts used. In many cases there is a point of diminishing return: added more money doesn’t change the customer’s experience.

Sometimes, the “quality” is in the design itself, not just picking a more expensive part.

There is an art to being really low-cost. I did this for many years at Tandy/Radio Shack and to the extreme at BlackBerry, were saving $0.05 per phone got you promoted.

But there is also a nice “feeling” knowing you are free to pick and chose whatever part you want, and there is so many now to pick from. It’s the path SynthTech has chosen, not everyone can relate.

I am also curious about this VCO design. Anything you could share with the public at the moment?

It is a spinoff from the coding work we did for the E950 Circuit Bent VCO, without the speech. We are always trying out new VCO designs in both HW and SW, I guess that is just my personal thing I like to work on. This new VCO will be shown at Knobcon on Sept 10th in Chicago. I will have details then. The test pc board arrives on Tuesday [which is today 😉 – the editor], I think I will refrain saying more until it actually works.

We were really happy to talk to Paul! See our post on the Quad Temporal Shifter

5x4=20 - 4ms is 20 years old! A thank-you with personal highlights

4ms Company might be a maker that all of us should be proud of thanks to their innovative aim. Even if we were not that interested in the “maths” in general, it would bring new life into your sounds’ temporal dimensions. Their latest sound processors are of a different generation, however, I do see the effort of them getting to a novel aim. The company’s recent 20 year anniversary being still around, I thought I would show you my personal highlights from 4ms.  
New dimensions in rhythms and beats

In my opinion, the 4ms Company products that have redefined modular synthesis and have saved it from the lovely but obviously limited linearity of sequencer-based “Berlin school” types of electronic music are still their clock modules…

Let’s recap. Take a clock divider. Give it a master clock, e.g. an LFO. The divider will spit out divisions that were set by the outputs. Like on the A-160-2 Doepfer Clock Divider:

a-160-2-clock-behaviour
The scheme of the A-160-2 clock divider

a-160-2


So far, this is just a very badly designed “snake game” in which the snake cannot be navigated through the wall. What you would really want is to maneuver your snake through the walls, because this way you earn your points rcdmore easily yet with more variety.  Now this is exactly

4ms Shuffling Clock Multiplier

what the Rotating Clock Divider and the Shuffling Clock Multiplier modules do. They rotate the output signals, so each divided clock signal appears on a different output as soon as you add an input signal to the Rotate input. So your kick suddenly starts trilling, your hihats suddenly slow down, claps start to rattle, envelopes go mad, etc. It may sound mathematical and generative, yet it still pleases your senses. You can even fine tune these and get new modes with their expanders (SCM Breakout), (RCD Breakout).

The clock divisions can be rotated on the 4ms RCD
The clock divisions can be rotated on the 4ms RCD

I would never say something stupid that “this had not been done before by anybody”. Obviously, if you patch the Doepfer outputs into an A-151 Quad Sequential Switch, something similar would already be happening. But honestly, how many times would you hear that compared to the relatively linear maybe ratcheting ways of clock dividers in the electronic music of the last 20 years?

Another thing I really like in this aim is addressing and challenging simplicity. Clock signals can be conceptualised in such a narrow way: saying “on and off” + “the time between these” would cover most of it, however with enough humbleness you can in fact reshape even this basic idea. Thanks to these modules, clock signals now – literally – add new dimensions to your rhythmic patterns, changing the topology of your timing in your system. Not to mention, that at audio rates they can function as sub-octave or sub-interval generators as well. Imagine crunchy chords, that can become really lush when you process them with a filter…

qcd_final_frontcfqcd_exp_final_frontdcAfter the RCD and the SCM modules, let me praise the mighty king of clocks, the Quad Clock Distributor – and its expander. The QCD’s 4 independently resettable, CV controllable clock divider/multiplier sub-units powered up with the expansion module  will provide you with enough rhythmic patterns till the end of civilisation. I have had it for 2 years, and I still find it really wonderfully inviting to work on new settings, not to even mention that I have mostly OR combined them… and yes, I wish you would forget anybody’s word being concerned about the width of the QCD expander. I would not even say that its an expander, it must be the end of the module’s story that is trying to tell you. Thanks to the pulse-width modulation, gate and trigger delay possibilities of the clocks and the attenuators, you will get the most delicate swings and accentuations in your music that you were dreaming about. Seriously.  Listen to this.

Or that one.

Maybe even that one. 

Last but not least, I would also love to thank them for the QPLFO and the PEG, which also expanded and colored the concepts of LFO’s and envelopes (slope generators in this case). However, you must have realised which my favourite modules are. And who would not dream about the spaceship-style interface of the VCA Matrix?

Clean power for everyone

Despite being tempted to start criticising for the price ROW POWER (30 and 40) is the way to go.

First of all, no power module gives you enough on the +5V rail except this module. I have seen systems freezing or failing enough times in eurorack cases packed with enough power-hungry modules, but not with the black ROW POWER 40. So here you have an ever-cool (even on its front panel you would hardly feel much of warmth), super slim power supply module with clean sounding and plenty of power! I said it right when I said clean sounding! I definitely felt that even my audio modules sounded more “powerful” (a thing which I hesitated to believe when I was reading up about it at a forum topic). 

Innovative digital audio processors

Don’t get me wrong: I have no bad things to say on the later generation of 4ms products. As concepts they are carving out the new digital realms and powers of eurorack. So I can only say that I still have a lack of enough personal experience with these modules: I have not even tried the Dual Looping Delay, and I am still new to the Spectral Multiband Resonator – it has been installed in one of the racks at the Analogue Zone showroom now, and has already got much use from the team and the guests. But as for audio, it must be a really subjective story. I have always liked different kinds of rhtyhms but I have always been picky – as everyone else – on sound. The SMR has to be used with the right kind of audio input and I would definitely spice it up to get rid of the somewhat recogniseable resonance tones. Think about something like the Trogotronic Tube VCA, the Erica Fusion Tube Mixer or the Kasleder Acid Fuzz, and you are on a really good way to get back to organic tones. Check out Divkid’s video on it – or check it out AGAIN if you already have:

One last thing… I have to say that the generally I have seen this company’s aims towards the customers. 4ms has always been reasonable with pricing, and they even offer some of their projects as kits as much more affordable products. And as I said, they are letting you sorting it out: they are not forcing a fixed musical concept from a certain era – which would be no offence for me, as I am also following a tradition of electronic music – they are saying do whatever sounds, whatever rhythms, at ease. because we have been able to give the space and opportunity for all these. Long live 4ms!
 
4ms Company might be a maker that all of us should be proud of thanks to their innovative aim. Even if we were not that interested in the “maths” in general, it would . Their latest sound processors are of a different generation, however, I do see the effort of them getting to a novel aim. The company’s recent 20 year anniversary being still around, I thought I would show you my personal highlights from 4ms.  
New dimensions in rhythms and beats

In my opinion, the 4ms Company products that have redefined modular synthesis and have saved it from the lovely but obviously limited linearity of sequencer-based “Berlin school” types of electronic music are still their clock modules…

Let’s recap. Take a clock divider. Give it a master clock, e.g. an LFO. The divider will spit out divisions that were set by the outputs. Like on the A-160-2 Doepfer Clock Divider:

a-160-2-clock-behaviour
The scheme of the A-160-2 clock divider

a-160-2

 


So far, this is just a very badly designed “snake game” in which the snake cannot be navigated through the wall. What you would really want is to maneuver your snake through the walls, because this way you earn your points rcdmore easily yet with more variety.  Now this is exactly

4ms Shuffling Clock Multiplier

what the Rotating Clock Divider and the Shuffling Clock Multiplier modules do. They rotate the output signals, so each divided clock signal appears on a different output as soon as you add an input signal to the Rotate input. So your kick suddenly starts trilling, your hihats suddenly slow down, claps start to rattle, envelopes go mad, etc. It may sound mathematical and generative, yet it still pleases your senses. You can even fine tune these and get new modes with their expanders (SCM Breakout), (RCD Breakout).

 

The clock divisions can be rotated on the 4ms RCD
The clock divisions can be rotated on the 4ms RCD

I would never say something stupid that “this had not been done before by anybody”. Obviously, if you patch the Doepfer outputs into an A-151 Quad Sequential Switch, something similar would already be happening. But honestly, how many times would you hear that compared to the relatively linear maybe ratcheting ways of clock dividers in the electronic music of the last 20 years?

Another thing I really like in this aim is addressing and challenging simplicity. Clock signals can be conceptualised in such a narrow way: saying “on and off” + “the time between these” would cover most of it, however with enough humbleness you can in fact reshape even this basic idea. Thanks to these modules, clock signals now – literally – add new dimensions to your rhythmic patterns, changing the topology of your timing in your system. Not to mention, that at audio rates they can function as sub-octave or sub-interval generators as well. Imagine crunchy chords, that can become really lush when you process them with a filter…

qcd_final_frontcf qcd_exp_final_frontdcAfter the RCD and the SCM modules, let me praise the mighty king of clocks, the Quad Clock Distributor – and its expander. The QCD’s 4 independently resettable, CV controllable clock divider/multiplier sub-units powered up with the expansion module  will provide you with enough rhythmic patterns till the end of civilisation. I have had it for 2 years, and I still find it really wonderfully inviting to work on new settings, not to even mention that I have mostly OR combined them… and yes, I wish you would forget anybody’s word being concerned about the width of the QCD expander. I would not even say that its an expander, it must be the end of the module’s story that is trying to tell you. Thanks to the pulse-width modulation, gate and trigger delay possibilities of the clocks and the attenuators, you will get the most delicate swings and accentuations in your music that you were dreaming about. Seriously.  Listen to this.

Or that one.

Maybe even that one. 

Last but not least, I would also love to thank them for the QPLFO and the PEG, which also expanded and colored the concepts of LFO’s and envelopes (slope generators in this case). However, you must have realised which my favourite modules are. And who would not dream about the spaceship-style interface of the VCA Matrix?

Clean power for everyone

Despite being tempted to start criticising for the price ROW POWER (30 and 40) is the way to go.

First of all, no power module gives you enough on the +5V rail except this module. I have seen systems freezing or failing enough times in eurorack cases packed with enough power-hungry modules, but not with the black ROW POWER 40. So here you have an ever-cool (even on its front panel you would hardly feel much of warmth), super slim power supply module with clean sounding and plenty of power! I said it right when I said clean sounding! I definitely felt that even my audio modules sounded more “powerful” (a thing which I hesitated to believe when I was reading up about it at a forum topic). 

Innovative digital audio processors

Don’t get me wrong: I have no bad things to say on the later generation of 4ms products. As concepts they are carving out the new digital realms and powers of eurorack. So I can only say that I still have a lack of enough personal experience with these modules: I have not even tried the Dual Looping Delay, and I am still new to the Spectral Multiband Resonator – it has been installed in one of the racks at the Analogue Zone showroom now, and has already got much use from the team and the guests. But as for audio, it must be a really subjective story. I have always liked different kinds of rhtyhms but I have always been picky – as everyone else – on sound. The SMR has to be used with the right kind of audio input and I would definitely spice it up to get rid of the somewhat recogniseable resonance tones. Think about something like the Trogotronic Tube VCA, the Erica Fusion Tube Mixer or the Kasleder Acid Fuzz, and you are on a really good way to get back to organic tones. Check out Divkid’s video on it – or check it out AGAIN if you already have:

One last thing… I have to say that the generally I have seen this company’s aims towards the customers. 4ms has always been reasonable with pricing, and they even offer some of their projects as kits as much more affordable products. And as I said, they are letting you sorting it out: they are not forcing a fixed musical concept from a certain era – which would be no offence for me, as I am also following a tradition of electronic music – they are saying do whatever sounds, whatever rhythms, at ease, because we have been able to give ourselves the space and opportunity for all these. Long live 4ms!