How the VCV Rack may change the name of the game


The enormous focus on modular synthesizers does not seem to fade anytime soon. Not only do we see a plethora of hardware modular guys popping up here and there, but we are also now in a situation where modulars are not only for those with a healthy wallet. Tiny machines make their way in the modular space, like the the crazy all-in-one mini-modular synth, the Anyware Minisizer. So, on one hand, huge walls of Eurorack are becoming increasingly common and the fandom for big, polyphonic analog synths shows no signs of slowing down.However, the biggest impact in modular though might be on the software side of things.

Modular in a sense is all about electronic and sonic explorations. And we believe this is very well described by Comparative Irrelevance:

“I love how the tempo/density of notes is completely self-regulated, and creates variations that are only evident over a longer period of time. This is done by using a slow, random S&H from Noise Tools to regulate Maths’ cycle rate and to occasionally let Brain Seed select new notes when the S&H signal passes above the ReSeed threshold. The number of notes in a given phrase depends on how long the ReSeed is “open” and how fast Maths is strumming while it is.

Repeated notes and negative voltages equal silence. In this patch I’m deliberately allowing quite long pauses to arise between phrases in the lower range of intensity, so this one’s not for the impatient.”

So what triggered this trend that used to be the sole hobby of traditionalists. The renaissance in the use of modular synths has been lead by guys like deadmau5 who has brought this messy little magical machines back into the limelight. So much so that we have seen a huge push from brands like Roland, Korg and Pioneer all vying for a piece of the synth action. The rational can perhaps be that a modular synth can be a wonderful addition to an electronic music setup, especially if you already have other analogue gear. You can add step sequencers, wild oscillators, filters and modulation to existing machines, or process audio from computers, guitar and mics beyond recognition. And it can be, by itself, a machine that offers a lifetime of sonic and melodic exploration and creativity. You will struggle to repeat the same sound on it twice, but it will constantly surprise you with new sounds, rhythms and melodies that could form the germ of a new track. With enough modules, you could produce an entire track on a modular without ever touching a computer.

However some take the modular synths one step further like Polytik, which is an Open source project. The Polytik is a modular synthesizer that is capable of being modified, hacked and adjusted to suit the individual needs or preferences of the user. This is possible thanks to the open-source hardware design of the Polytik that enables and encourages users to tinker with the components to create something inherently for them. The Polytik modular synthesizer is the work of John Richards and Jack Featherstone in collaboration with Artists & Engineers. Each of the Polytik devices is capable of producing an array of different sounds and noises that can be utilized in a number of different scenarios. The Polytik consists of four separate modulars that allow users to switch up what’s possible and further augment the device to be just to their liking.

However, and as indicated in the beginning of this post, perhaps the most intriguing progression is taking place on the software side of things. VCV Rack is an open-source virtual modular synth featuring software versions of some of the most popular Eurorack modules on the market and is available to download for free. VCV Rack, which was launched at Chicago’s Knobcon event last weekend, features 30 different modules based on gear from Mutable Instruments, Befaco and Synthesis Technology, many of which feature direct ports of the software that powers the originals.

VCV Rack isn’t, of course, the only software modular available: Native Instruments’ Reaktor Blocks and Softube’s Modular offer users their own virtual Eurorack system, but these come with a hefty price tag.

VCV Rack has one key difference over a hardware modular: control voltages and audio signals are equivalent, meaning audio signals can be used to modulate other parameters. So, for example, sonic-range VCOs can be used to create customizable FM synths or wave-shaping oscillators.

Owners of hardware modular synths can also use VCV Rack to expand their own system. As long as you have an audio interface that supports control voltage or a MIDI to CV converter, you can connect your modular using Rack’s forthcoming CV Interface device. While plenty of new modules are already planned for VCV Rack, it’s not yet possible to connect it to your DAW, though an upcoming VST/AU plug-in called Rack Bridge will make this possible.

The best part is that the free VCV Rack virtual Eurorack system has now been updated to version 0.4.0, adding even more powerful stuff. The update includes a new VCO in Fundamental, Lissajous mode in Scope, Rampage dual slope generator, output port cable stacking, plug lights, and more.

Changes in VCV Rack v0.4.0

  • Cables can now stack on output ports.
  • Added sub-menus for each plugin and scrollable menus.
  • Added MIDI CC-to-CV Interface, updated MIDI-to-CV Interface.
  • Added new scrolling methods: middle-click-and-drag, shift-scroll, and arrow keys.
  • Added engine pausing in sample rate menu.
  • Added resizable blank to Core.
  • Added plug lights for monitoring voltages of cables.
  • Support for AMD Phenom II processors.
  • Self-contained app bundle on Mac, plugins and settings go in ~/Documents/Rack/
  • Fundamental:
    • Added Lissajous mode to Scope.
    • Added two LFOs and VCO-2.
  • Befaco:
    • Added Rampage dual slope generator.
  • Audible Instruments:
    • Added Keyframer/Mixer, based on Frames.
    • Added nonlinear string and chord mode to Modal Synthesizer, based on Elements.

VCV Rack is a free download for Windows, Mac and Linux. The additional Audible Instruments, E-Series and Befaco modules are also free.

  • Sonus Modular is a free collection of 7 modules
  • ML_Modules is a collection fo 5 modules
  • Leonardo Laguna Ruiz has released VultModules, a set of three virtual filter modules for the open-source VCV Rack virtual modular synthesizer.
  • NYSTHI is a collection of reverb and logic modules
  • Simple module pack

For more free modules, check out Sonus Modular, a collection of 7 modules for VCV Rack by Sonus Dept.

The modules included are:

  • Bymidside: MS (mid-side) encoder.
  • Deathcrush: distorsion and bitcrusher.
  • Multimulti: a simple but handy double 2-in 8-out multiples.
  • Osculum: a VCO capable of harmonic but unusual sounds.
  • Piconoise: an ultra compact white noise generator with 8 outputs.
  • Scramblase: triple quadruple waveshaper.
  • Twoff: double CV static offset.

The source code is licensed under BSD, and binary releases for Windows and Linux are provided (OS X binaries coming soon). Requires VCV Rack v0.4.0.

More information: VCV Rack