Want to build a modular synth exactly like the one Aphex Twin used at Field Day? Read on.
Earlier this month, Richard D James made his return to the stage with sets at Barcelona’s Primavera Sound and London’s Field Day. These performances were primarily DJ sets – with tracks from artists like Kamixlo and Lorenzo Senni alongside his own productions – but he also brought along his Eurorack modular synth.
It’s not clear exactly what he was using the modular for, but it seems likely that James was using his rig (alongside a laptop running NI’s Traktor DJ software and X1 controller) to generate some of the performance’s more abstract sounds, specifically the wall of noise that he used as a sonic palate cleanser to close his epic-two-hour set.
— Scanner (@robinrimbaud) June 4, 2017
Though the livestream showed the rig James was using, it wasn’t clear enough to make out the individual modules. However, last week, James appeared on SoundCloud (via his user18081971 account) and revealed the setup he used at Field Day, sharing a link to an image of his modular from Eurorack resource ModularGrid (mirrored here and shown below).
The case used isn’t specifically listed, but the overall size and red fold-out legs visible in the Field Day livestream are exactly the same as Intellijel’s 7U Performance Case, which has three rows of 84HP each, including one at the top for Intellijel’s smaller 1U modules.
A simple but handy module that supplies USB power to low-level devices. It looks as if James is using at least one of these to power the lamp that’s illuminating his rig.
Price: $15 each
This is a balanced send and return module for interfacing with effects units or other external audio gear. It’s not clear how (or if) he’s using this module, but according to one of his SoundCloud comments, James has 10 outputs going from the modular into a Midas Venice 160 mixer, with seven outputs going from the mixer back into the modular.
“Midas is really good for this as, I use the group out sliders and the aux out sliders, which are really nice and fast to set on the fly, can play them as opposed to turning a knob which is a slower to do in live situ,” he says.
Plug a CV or audio signal into the top or bottom row of this module and it will send to the other outputs on the same row.
A quad attenuator, attenuverter, mixer and DC voltage source, the Quadratt 1U can be used for inverting, mixing and scaling CV signals.
This sends the Eurorack’s audio signal out through a balanced 1/4-inch jack cable connector.
One of the most popular modules from Portland’s 4ms, the Spectral Multiband Resonant Filter does what a classic audio filter can, with six EQ bands that can be controlled with individual sliders. However, it’s also got a harmonizer function, which is capable of turning audio input or even just white noise into something that sounds like a chord.
Make Noise’s voltage-controlled reverb module can be used for standard spaces such as hall, room and plate, but its unique variable algorithm is best used to create more unusual reverb spaces.
This module takes any audio signal (vocals, guitar, synth), analyses the pitch and converts it into control voltage (CV). It was invented by AS founder Bob Williams after he saw Alison Goldfrapp using her voice to control a Korg MS20 synth.
Doepfer’s A-186-1 is a simple but useful utility module, which allows you to combine up to seven gate, trigger or analog signals.
A two-channel voltage controlled amplifier that allows you to modify audio signal and control voltage levels.
This handy module from WMD features four inputs and four outputs, the routing of which can be switched on the fly if you want to create a new patch without unplugging any cables. The routing can also be controlled via CV, if you want to create audio chopping effects.
According to one of his SoundCloud comments, James did some patching “on the go” during his set but also did automation with WMD’s module. “I used to use the Alyseum matrix for that but ran out of room,” he says.
Tiptop’s Z-DSP can digitally process and generate sounds using its 24-bit sampling engine. It’s incredibly versatile and accepts cartridges that allow it do many different things when inserted, including add delay or reverb, or pitch-shift audio.
This module can shift sound up or down using CV. It also functions as a ring-modulator if you want to make your audio input sound more wobbly and metallic.
Epoch Modular’s Benjamin is an synth inspired by the principles of chaos theory. So, it’s great for adding randomness to your sequences and creating patterns that morph into new shapes quite abruptly.
M.A.S.F. is a boutique Japanese company best known for its noisy, glitchy guitar pedals. The Mo.s Model OSC 03 is a Eurorack module in much the same vein that can create an apocalyptic wall of sound.
This module from Qu-Bit features arcade-style buttons that let you play and record drum loops. It’s also got drum roll and clock division features that can create the sort of undanceable rhythms you might expect from an Aphex set.
Overall, James’s modular is pretty versatile: there’s the Mo.s Model OSC 03 for noise generation, while the Tri-Ger makes a great performance interface for playing drums mid-set if he wants. The 4ms SMR filter and Benjolin can also be used to generate harmonic sounds.
However, it’s very effect-heavy, so it seems likely that James is using his modular setup for processing rather than generating sound – especially in the context of his Field Day set, which was predominantly made up of music from other artists.
While this is the synth James used at Field Day, he also confirmed in one of his SoundCloud comments that he’s got a lot of other Euroack setups at home. “I’ve used two other completely different ones but this is the one I’ve got with me on the road right now.”
The total cost if you want to buy a modular exactly like Aphex Twin? $4,678. It might sound like a lot of money, but Eurorack is a notoriously expensive hobby, and you can often expect to pay $500 or more for a single module – especially if it’s particularly unusual.
If you want to get into modular but you don’t have the cash to spare then NI’s Reaktor 6 has its own set of virtual modules, while Softube’s virtual modular system has recreations of real-world products such as the SMR from 4ms. If you’re just starting out, our advice is to start small.