How to Get Started in Eurorack
How do you get started in Eurorack? It’s a question that anyone interested in sound and synthesis asks themselves at one point or another. You may think that you’ll be satisfied with software synthesizers, you may tell yourself that having a few hardware synths is enough for your creative ambitions. But we know that the draw of those sparkly lights, the allure of those colorful patch cables and the potential of creating musical and electrical connections that no one else has discovered are far too great. We have to find out; we have to take steps and dip our toes into this world. But how do you do it without jumping in with both feet? How do you make a start in this bewildering sub-set of electronic music without losing your mind or exploding your credit rating?
Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. In this article, I’m going to lead you to several ways of tackling this question by going over the basics and giving you some options to pursue in taking your first steps into a larger and more modular world.
In this discussion of how to get started in Eurorack, we’ll explore products like:
- VCV Rack
- Voltage Modular from Cherry Audio
- Modular from Softube
- Behringer Neutron
- Moog Mother-32
- Pittsburgh Modular Microvolt
- Doepfer modules
- Erica Synths modules
- Tip Top Audio cases
- Arturia RackBrute
First of all, what do we mean by “Eurorack”? Eurorack is a fairly loose format of modular hardware synthesis that’s based upon the patching up of individual sound generating and manipulating modules. It was created by Dieter Doepfer in the 1990s and is based in analog technology — (although the modules do not have to be analog) invented by Moog, Buchla and other synthesizer companies in the 1970s — that uses Control Voltage (CV) as the method of controlling parameters. It has some key standards in the physical size of the modules so that they fit into standard sized “racks.” They are connected via front-mounted patch cables based on 1/8” mono jacks. The CV is usually ranged between +-5V. You do not need to understand what that is or why it’s what it is; all you need to grasp is that if you connect the CV output of an LFO module to the CV input of a filter module, the LFO will control the cut-off. Your audio signal is also patched using the exact same cables in the same way.
To get started in Eurorack, you are going to need to understand a couple of basic modular synthesis concepts:
- You won’t get any sound out unless you patch it together to make sound.
- It won’t behave like a hardware synthesizer unless you patch it together to do that.
- Modular can have a steep learning curve.
- To “patch” is to connect two things with a cable.
And then you need to know a few of the basic building blocks that form what we generally regard as a synthesizer. If you are used to hardware or software synthesizers, then these blocks or modules will be familiar to you as synthesizer components, but you might not have interacted with them quite so individually before. Synthesizers do all the wiring in the background for us so we never really have to consider how an envelope interacts with a filter, just that something happens when I turn this knob. Eurorack will give you a thorough understanding of how all these things work.
Most basic synthesizers consist of the following five modules:
- VCO — Voltage Controlled Oscillator. This is what generates the sound and is often a sine wave, triangle, sawtooth or pulse/square wave.
- VCF— Voltage Controlled Filter. Our favorite sound shaping tool; the filter.
- VCA— Voltage Controlled Amplifier. Acts as a volume control for the VCO although it has a lot of other useful applications.
- ADSR— or Envelope. This controls the shape of the volume of the VCO, although you can apply that shape to all sorts of things.
- LFO — Low-Frequency Oscillator. This provides CV modulation on the parameters of other modules. You could see it as the mod wheel on your hardware synth.
One of Eurorack’s greatest attributes is the ability to patch anything into anything else. It’s not always appropriate, but you’ll find that almost everything can be something else or do more than the basic thing it was intended for. For instance, a VCO can become an LFO, a VCF can oscillate, a VCA can control the level of CV, and an Envelope can become a looping waveform. But that’s probably going too far too quickly. Let’s stick with the basics and the leave the more advanced stuff to your own journey of discovery.
So, let’s look at how these five modules interact and become a “synthesizer.”
Once free from the shackles of pre-patched synthesizers the possibilities and module choices start to become limitless. You can add in Sequencers not just to control pitch but to control modulation; you can combine LFOs into all sorts of shapes, you can add in randomization and chance, introduce rhythm with triggers and gate sequencers and then start modulating oscillators with other oscillators.
With a regular synthesizer, you press a key on the keyboard, and you hear a sound at that pitch for as long as you hold the key — this is normal and expected. In Eurorack, those simple connections are no longer there, and you have to adopt a broader understanding of what’s going on. An oscillator (VCO) is sounding all the time, there’s no on/off switch, and when you play a note it doesn’t turn the oscillator on as it’s already playing. If you connect the waveform output on a VCO to the audio output you’ll hear a constant drone. So, what your keyboard is doing is opening a Gate on the VCA. (It controls the volume right?) Press a key, and it sends a positive voltage to the CV input on the VCA which opens it up, and we hear the sound of the VCO coming through. Let go of the key, and the Gate closes, and we no longer hear the sound. The key press acts on the VCA, not the VCO.
The Gate opening of a VCA is a bit basic and inexpressive, so instead, we can use an ADSR to shape the volume control of the VCA. ADSR stands for Attack (how fast the sound comes in), Decay (how fast the sound goes away), Sustain (the level as long as the key is held) and Release (how quickly the sound fades). So for a fast bass sound, you might have a fast Attack, high Sustain, no Release. For a pad sound, you might have a slow Attack, long Decay, and long Release. So, in our synth voice, we patch the keyboard to the Gate of the ADSR, and this gives us a much more controllable shape to the volume of the sound.
Secondly, with CV the pitch is not defined by the keyboard, it’s defined by the tuning knob on the VCO. All the keyboard does is add voltage to the pitch control on the VCO and is defined as 1 Volt being equivalent to an octave change. So, pressing middle C on your keyboard will not result in hearing a middle C from the VCO unless you have tuned it and set the voltage coming from the keyboard to achieve this. This appears to be a bit complicated until you realize that the piano keyboard is not a native of the Eurorack world. Although you can use them either through a MIDI-to-CV interface or if the keyboard has its own CV outputs, but you are more likely to be using a Eurorack-based sequencer. A sequencer generates a series of voltages which move the pitch of the VCO relative to what it’s been tuned to. So, this automatic connection we make between a piano keyboard and a synthesizer is one of the many assumptions we must let go of when starting in Eurorack.
The VCF is a bit more obvious, though. The waveform from the output of the VCO plugs straight into it before going to the VCA — that’s easy. The less obvious question is how do you modulate the cut-off? Well, you can do this with the LFO using the sine wave output to sweep the cut-off. The LFO might have other waveforms as well that you can use for added variety. Or you can use the ADSR to control the filter the same as it’s controlling the VCA.
That’s all five modules working together in the most basic ways, but it’s just a place to start. Once free from the shackles of pre-patched synthesizers the possibilities and module choices start to become limitless. You can add in Sequencers not just to control pitch but to control modulation; you can combine LFOs into all sorts of shapes, you can add in randomization and chance, introduce rhythm with triggers and gate sequencers and then start modulating oscillators with other oscillators. And so it goes on.
But back to the original question of how you get started. There are, I believe, three main ways to begin.
Eurorack can be daunting, and it certainly requires a significant investment, and so it would make a lot of sense to test the water with some software emulations first. Right from the outset, I need to make it as clear as I can that the physical interaction with hardware is one of the key essences of Eurorack and is undoubtedly a big factor in its success. However, we can learn an awful lot about how Eurorack works and the sort of sounds you can generate by starting in software. And the best place to try is VCV Rack (pictured above).
VCV Rack is an open source Eurorack emulation for Windows, MacOS, and Linux that is free to use — and extraordinary. It has recently reached its first official version 1.0 and is a finished piece of sound generating and synthesis creating software. It’s designed to work exactly like Eurorack and so it expects you to understand the modular concepts I mentioned above. However, the default template in VCV Rack has several modules pre-patched and ready to go — all you need to do is specify your audio interface and MIDI input and off you go.
The default patch has a basic synthesizer voice using a VCO, VCF, ADSR and a Mixer, which is essentially a four channel VCA. They’ve thrown in a scope so you can see the waveforms being produced which is very handy as it gives you a good indication that things are working even if you can’t get any sound out. And at the beginning, there’s a MIDI-CV module for taking your controller keyboard’s input and converting that into CV to change the pitch of the oscillator and open the gate on the VCA (Mixer) via the ADSR. This is a brilliant way of learning about modular because it’s all there, patched up for you and you can see and hear how they interact.
VCV Rack can be daunting in itself because of the vast range of modules that are available for it and the extraordinary patches that people are building — patches that would be impossible with hardware. But it’s a great and free place to start for anyone interesting in Eurorack. You should also check out Voltage Modular from Cherry Audio and Modular from Softube, which are premium products but offer another great window into the Eurorack world.
A semi-modular synth is a great steppingstone to Eurorack because you’re always starting with a device that you understand as a regular synth. And even if you don’t take it any further you have a cool synth to play with.
As Eurorack has grown more popular so have hardware synthesizers and many have adopted a more modular approach to better integrate these worlds. This manifests in a bunch of CV patch points appearing on the front panel or rear panel of synths. We tend to call these “semi-modular” because they will operate quite happily without any patching, but it’s there if you want to use it. This is a great way to start getting the hang of the modular approach. Some of them have patch bays where you can essentially start re-patching how the synthesizer works just within itself. Or, even better, if you have a couple of semi-modular synths you can start investigating how these elements can interact.
A semi-modular synth is a great steppingstone to Eurorack because you’re always starting with a device that you understand as a regular synth. And even if you don’t take it any further you have a cool synth to play with. Good examples would be the Behringer Neutron (pictured above), Moog Mother-32 or Pittsburgh Modular Microvolt.
Get Some Modules
Perhaps the most direct way of getting started is to get a bunch of modules and start working with oscillators, audio, and control voltage. Start with the basics of a synth voice as I described above and you can construct a wicked little monosynth. You can get them from all sorts of manufacturers. Some people like to stay with the same company, some like one thing from many different ones. It’s a question of personal taste. For a good range of modules check out Doepfer, the company that started it all. Pittsburgh Modular and Erica Synths are also great places to start with great sounding modules.
A website called ModularGrid.net can be wonderfully helpful in designing your Eurorack system. It lets you browse all the currently available modules from every manufacturer and arrange them in a rack just to see what they would look like. It also, rather alarmingly, gives you a rough price for what you’ve chosen. It’s an invaluable resource.
But the biggest initial hurdle to Eurorack proper is that for your modules to work you need a case and suitable power supply. Not very long ago you’d have to build this yourself — and you can still do that — but thankfully it’s much easier to buy a case these days with power already built in so that you don’t have to worry about it. But they can be surprisingly expensive. Also, you have to decide on the size — how wide and how many rows. I’d recommend starting with at least single 104HP row (HP is a measurement of width) but you don’t want to run out of room too fast. So aim high, dream big. Erica Synths do a great 2-row case, so do Tip Top Audio. Arturia has recently got into the game with their very cool RackBrute system (pictured above).
So, you can go all the way and get stuck in with a case and some modules. You can go halfway there with a semi-modular synthesizer or two. Or you can be more cautious and explore the possibilities of software. All of these options will start to open up the amazing world of Eurorack modular and give you a huge place to discover and change your music forever.
Image via Arturia RackBrute.
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