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Building a Buchla Modular System

Friday May 13, 2022. 05:53 PM , from Sweetwater inSync
A Brief History of Buchla

The bicoastal history of synthesizer research, development, and application has comprised parts west and east all the same. Don Buchla famously pioneered a vision of synthesis that was so far ahead of the curve that the eventual emergence and incorporation of his ideas into the broader world of synthesis puts so much temporal distance from their West Coast origins that it can be difficult to tease them apart. If you’re here now, however, then you’ve likely caught a whiff of intrigue that there’s much, much more to be unearthed and explored. The natural question revolves around finding an entry point to this seemingly complex, sometimes esoteric world of Buchla’s West Coast synthesis. Sweetwater is here to help you understand and build the best Buchla rig for your needs, guiding you into the Buchla-verse.

The Basics of Buchla

Now, where to begin? What modules do you need? We’re almost there, but there’s one more very important distinction we must make. If you’ve perused the Buchla offerings, then you may have noticed that most modules end with an “e” designation. Most of the information in this guide will be equally applicable to all modules, but those without an “e” suffix are reissue models. As such, they lack the capacity for preset storage and do not internally process any MIDI information.

In terms of physical space, the modules operate within their own standardized realm. Buchla panels are 4U high and measure their width in the number of “panels” they occupy. Apart from h-series modules (half height), all the current Buchla modules are the same height. So, all you need to worry about is the number of panel spaces you need. You’ve likely ascertained that these modules will also require special housing. The two primary categories are boats and cases. Boats are standalone housing, and then cases are made up of boats. Cases consist of multiple boats that are vertically linked, running from a single power source; although, all cases have hinges and can fold up, making them more mobile-friendly for gigging musicians.

Note: If you plan to get four modules and expect that you may expand in the future, then you may want to buy housing for more than just four modules.

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Designing Your System Around the Easel Command

If you’re reading this section, then we can probably assume two things: that you have a running understanding of how Buchla’s sound-design process functions and that you either own or have interfaced with a Buchla Easel Command. This is a standalone desktop synth, comprised of the 208c module, with built-in MIDI, audio, and CV connectivity. You already know this if you’ve used or owned an Easel Command, but, for all its capabilities, it’s more of a cross section of Buchla’s “greatest hits” and far from a comprehensive experience of the Buchla arsenal.

Supplementary Modules

A rudimentary approach might be to imagine the Easel Command taking the place of the four-panel core system we discuss below. This doesn’t mean, however, that the Easel Command must be the starting point of 208c sound generation. New modules can be used to feed information to the Easel Command just as easily as the Easel Command’s various parameters can be used to control voltages that end up making their way to a 261e Complex Waveform Generator, for example. The Easel Command is powerful, but its design isn’t meant to supplement a Buchla system. In fact, the 208c module can be purchased by itself or remounted into a larger rack! From that perspective, its operative capacity can be easily reimagined to function just the same way as the parameters of the other modules do. Similarly, using any voltage-processing or function-generator modules can yield some pretty interesting results when used alongside the Easel Command.

Whether the Easel Command stays at the center of your rig or becomes another module, the choice is yours. No matter which route you take, the possibilities are endless!

Expanding the Easel Command with MIDI

MIDI compatibility is a relatively new feature for the Buchla world. Using a few different chips, MIDI usage is possible with a modular Buchla system. The Easel Command, however, has this capability built in, meaning everything from expressive-touch interfaces and drum machines to DAWs and so much more can control the Easel Command’s output. This, by itself, allows the interesting potential to incorporate the Easel Command into a larger setup that isn’t exclusively Buchla gear, but the incorporation of a 225e MIDI Decoder/Preset Manager would allow you to capitalize on the expressive depth of Buchla’s sounds. From here, the Easel Command can be a parallel sound source or a CV generator.

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Building from the Ground Up: Core Modules and a 4-panel System

With that out of the way, we’re ready to start. To maximize functionality and interfacing possibilities, there are four primary modules that are recommended to form the basis of a Buchla system.

225e MIDI Decoder/Preset Manager261e Complex Waveform Generator281e Quad Function Generator292e Quad Dynamics Manager

Adding a 201e-4 powered boat to these four would net you a self-contained system with a full synth voice, MIDI control, and preset recall.

Buchla’s e-series modules can store preset data for most (if not all) parameters, and the 225e MIDI Decoder/Preset Manager allows you to save local and global preset data for your setup. If knobs are in different orientations from a preset’s designation, then the information will “catch up” to its new value as you adjust, allowing for a smooth transition rather than abruptly jumping to the new value. The MIDI portion of the 225e MIDI Decoder/Preset Manager handles the conversion of incoming MIDI messages into analog voltages and pulses alongside managing internal buses for modules that directly respond to MIDI.

The 261e Complex Waveform Generator utilizes a dual-oscillator system for waveform manipulation with a modulation oscillator targeting a principal oscillator. The “complex” part is found in the litany of onboard and CV methods of modulating timbre space and oscillator values. You can use the 281e Quad Function Generator to produce complex output voltages as well as an attenuating OR function through a quadrature mode, which allows you to blend pairs of function generators. Conversely, you can run them all independently or through one another, all creating rich output values. Finally, the 292e Quad Dynamics Manager is something of a 4-channel mixer, sporting four voltage-controlled amplifiers alongside dedicated velocity inputs and a three-option mode management switch.

Progressing to an 8-panel System

As you build from here, the combinatorial possibilities begin to explode. Voltages can be run into and through themselves, other modules, and back with banana jacks, allowing you to stack output signals from multiple sources to a single input. Taking this from a 4- to an 8-panel system, a recommended configuration would include adding a second 261e Complex Waveform Generator as well as a 291e Triple Morphing Filter and a 227e System Interface (a 2-panel module). This would result in a much more robust iteration of the 4-panel build, producing multitimbral capabilities that would add greater aural texture to your sound. Moreover, this takes a page out of Suzanne Ciani’s playbook as the 227e System Interface is capable of quadrophonic mixing, enabling a deeper integration with the sonic environments of the outside world. Working alongside the 227e System Interface’s spatialization features, an otherwise rudimentary tool — like the 291e Triple Morphing Filter’s bandpass filters — suddenly takes on even greater dimensional significance, and the 291e Triple Morphing Filter’s take on filtering is already anything but rudimentary!

Reimagining Interactivity and the Skylab

Between Don Buchla’s stated opinions on interface limitations and the general modus operandi of his modules, it should be clear that the Buchla design philosophy is one that shirks conventions. To that end, Don didn’t reject or hate keyboards (an urban legend suggests that he did), but he felt they front-loaded the creative process with the interactive limitations of their tonal execution, that technology had yet to adequately articulate our capacity for new sonic opportunities. Perhaps most frustrating to Don, this was a human limitation, not one of available technology. Unsurprisingly, he set out to create his own answer: the Buchla Thunder.

Buchla’s non-keyboard interfacing reaches back to use of resistance touch plates and technology Don derived from his work as a freelance engineer with NASA (which was installed in the form of fuel sensors for rockets), but the current iteration utilizes the same embodied philosophy and is an integral part of Buchla’s Skylab — their most popular preconfigured system. The Skylab exists in a portable case whose unique form factor allows it to fold up to airline-friendly dimensions without needing to remove or unplug patch cables. This is a tipping point, of sorts, in that Buchla systems any larger than this tend to be highly personalized. All recommendations moving forward are just that: recommended layouts built on the four core modules we’ve identified already.

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This 10-module system incorporates, among many other things, the 223e Multi-dimensional Kinesthetic Input/Tactile Input Port — four total panel units with three of them being externalized in the form of a touch interface whose layout mirrors the original Thunder. Its namesake design is meant to resemble a Thunderbird (of indigenous lore) and is comprised of 27 ergonomically arranged keys that are both velocity and pressure sensitive. Fourteen of the 27 keys also respond to location in two dimensions, while the bottom two hexagonal pads operate more like a joystick with X- and Y-axis parameters. This isn’t technically an MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression) instrument, but its usage and tactility are similar. By using capacitive touch panels, the “pressure” values are calculated as a product of surface-area contact. For sound designers looking to reimagine their interactive capacity, this is a must-have. The remaining panel is the Tactile Input Port that allows you to output location, pressure, impact, pulses, and tuned voltages as 30 total outputs to other modules as well as a robust arpeggiator and more. Including the 223e Multi-dimensional Kinesthetic Input/Tactile Input Port vastly expands audio-processing opportunities without the conventional restrictions of a standard keyboard.

Beyond the 223e Multi-dimensional Kinesthetic Input/Tactile Input Port, the Skylab features our four core modules alongside five more. The 251e Quad Sequential Voltage Source is essentially a deeply programmable 200-stage sequencer broken up into four 50-stage segments that can operate independently or be chained together, all with their own dedicated I/O ports and editing features. Then, there’s the 259e Twisted Waveform Generator, a relative of the 261e Complex Waveform Generator but with self-modulation, screeching, and a host of other “twisted” noise generation that adds plenty of new and unusual colors to your sonic landscape. Next is the 267e Uncertainty Source/Dual Filter, which is essentially two parallel voltage randomizers, dual bandpass filters, and a noise generator. The 207e Mixer/Microphone Preamplifier is a 6×2 stereo mixer with some extra CV-modulated flair and a parallel mic preamp. Finally, we have the 285e Frequency Shifter/Balanced Modulator, an advanced ring modulator with a parallel segment of dual-output “up” and “down” ports for the frequency shifter that are simultaneously available.

From here, the Buchla world is your synthesized oyster. With any larger configuration, you’re opening a door to nearly limitless audio processing, synthesizing, and sound-design opportunities. It’s difficult to make staunch recommendations when every module is uniquely engineered to work in an ecosystem that is itself designed to produce unexpected results.

With larger systems, the layout and organization of modules influences how you might produce and design your sounds. For one, larger systems are less portable. Though all cases can be folded down, large rigs are optimized for stationary usage as — unlike the smaller 10-panel powered case — patch cables can’t remain plugged in while folded. Moreover, large cases emphasize your personal, physically situated orientation to your sound-design process — something that might be less relevant to smaller or mobile-friendly setups. Using 18- and 24-panel cases provides greater horizontal space in each row, which is its own form of modular consideration. To that end, you may consider subdividing sections based on the spatial relations of module connectivity or duplicating modules to accommodate parallel outputs that are controlled from a common source.

The aforementioned 223e Multi-dimensional Kinesthetic Input/Tactile Input Port can be supplemented with a 223TS Passive Wood Frame for 223e Control Surface, a passive frame that allows the touch-panel control surface to exist in housing separate from your boat or case setup. While this makes sense for limited-space rigs, its inclusion in a stationary case would take up more real estate but would also encourage greater exploration of multi-module and/or polyphonic options.

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This may not be a new consideration for those already familiar with modular synthesis, but the sheer unpredictability and exploratory nature of Buchla systems place a different type of emphasis on your physical, spatial relationship to your system and how the ergonomic arrangement of modules (and subsequent use of TiniCables and banana jacks) results in an output. The 223e Multi-dimensional Kinesthetic Input control surface is a great example of this as the external housing would open three panel spaces while being more easily accessible. Plus, the external housing is not locked in place, allowing greater degrees of performance and interfacing flexibility.

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The Buchla world encourages exploration and rearranging to the point that the journey is almost more important than the end result. Apart from the Skylab, these configurations are just recommendations formulated to help give you an understanding of how these systems interface and intercede with one another. Clearly, any number of modules can be swapped out, duplicated, or removed, but the core four are a great starting place for a controllable synth voice.

Audio Processing and Traversing Aural Space

In consideration of the unyielding potential for variability that various modules can offer through CV connectivity, one approach to audio processing might be to use simple (or complex) voltage information to control audio output and spatial parameters. An early adopter of this methodology was novelist and musician Ken Kesey (author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), who was a friend of Don Buchla. Kesey and Ken Babbs operated their “Buchla Box,” which incorporated reverb, a dual microphone preamp, and a 6-channel mixer as well as a custom-made panel for speaker distribution. Though the exact modules are extinct, Buchla’s current offerings make such a thing easily accessible.

Modules such as the 207e Mixer/Microphone Preamplifier and the 230e Triple Envelope Tracker/Preamplifier both feature XLR inputs, and the latter has combo inputs with TRS compatibility. The integration of these types of modules can allow for complex modulation of audio parameters, including the panning of channels 1 and 6 in the 207e Mixer/Microphone Preamplifier or the triple envelope follower of the 230e Triple Envelope Tracker/Preamplifier.

A more complex arrangement may take a page out of Suzanne Ciani’s playbook, starting with the 227e System Interface. This mixer module is, among many other things, designed around a quadrophonic approach to sound design. The spatial relationships of signals within the sonic field could be controlled by, say, the 252e Polyphonic Rhythmic Generator with added layers of modulation through the rotation of Euclidian necklaces on the 252e Polyphonic Rhythmic Generator. In this way, one could construct a sound sculpture around rhythmic distribution throughout a spatiotemporal plane. Conversely, a more exploratory, less “safe” route might be to build wildly unpredictable sound-spaces with the uncertainty engine of the 266e Source of Uncertainty or 267e Uncertainty Source/Dual Filter. For added texture, throw in a 256e Quad Control Voltage Processor or a 267e Uncertainty Source/Dual Filter to shape voltage outputs through algebraic transformations to affect audio outputs, envelope trackers, and more. Or you could go a step further, shirk the XLR/TRS approach altogether, and sub in a 272e Polyphonic Tuner to pull signals from radio frequencies while modulating parameters that dictate which channels are available along with how and when they change. The 296e Spectral Processor’s vocoding capabilities would be a welcome addition to this madness of audio processing, too.

Endless Sonic Exploration

This is only a smattering of modules with a very loose conception of how they might operate alongside one another. As you can imagine, endless potential abounds, and the applications of these modules are immensely diverse. This also illustrates how the modulation of parameters is applicable to audio processing and synthesizer voicing.

When you’re ready to take the dive, contact us at (800) 222-4700 to speak with a Buchla Specialist Sales Engineer at Sweetwater for a consultation and more information on acquiring and building the Buchla system that’s perfect for you.

The post Building a Buchla Modular System appeared first on inSync.

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