Sunday, June 26, 2011

How to Buchla...

Precious little is actually written by Buchla and Associates about what is possibly the most complex modular synthesizer ever created. When you buy a 200e module you get a short one or two page typed paper with a brief description of some of the buttons and featured of that particular module. This is apparently a well known conscious decision, made by the designer, to encourage the user to explore the unit on their own terms and come up with what it means to them. There is no hand holding when you go to the world of Buchla and in fact there is no electronic printed or scanned documentation of any kind officially available. This is "old school" only, ironic for an instrument that was ahead of it's time in the 1960s and now still holds that place.

This is certainly one legitimate philosophy regarding modular synthesis (and creativity in general if you want to take it that far). People learn by doing and you bring your knowledge and talents to the instrument and what comes out is based on your personal experience and effort.

I've often referred to Modulars in general as a "Master's Class" in synthesis. To use one at all
you must know certain basic building blocks of sound creation and the principles of voltage control. They are not the place to start if you've never seen or used a synthesizer. The more you know about patching, module functions, and audio and voltage routing the more successful you will be in getting what you want out of the process.

If a modular synth in general is a "Master's Class" then certainly learning and effectively using the Buchla 200e can be considered getting your Phd. The 200e is so unique and groundbreaking there are many features that not only are not apparent, but many are hidden
in computer sub-menus and color coded LEDS or otherwise completely non intuitive. Even long time experienced users of patchable synthesizers can easily get lost in the maze of hidden preset settings and run/stop options.

There are multiple busses that carry preset and other information. One could spend months or longer on the sequencer alone learning it's various sync, step, loop, and clocking possibilities. The Oscillators are digital hybrid voltage controlled aptly named "Complex" machines with separate audio and CV routings. Truthfully, a one sheet summary of face value functions isn't going to get you very far in learning how to use this monster.

Fortunately all is not lost thanks to our good friend the Internet. Support groups (that's really the best way I can say it where Buchla users are concerned) exist where other 200e users, experienced synthesists, or just plain curious fans post questions and offer advice to specific issues.

The two I have used the most are the Buchla Yahoo group and the Buchla/EMS/Serge Forum on Muff's in general is an excellent place to ask questions and get quick answers from like minded and helpful synthheads regarding pretty much any topic you can think of from gear to recording techniques, hardware or software. I believe Muffwiggler is the most populated place with actual users of 200e modules and even the most esoteric question usually spawns a useful thread with information you would never find anywhere else.

Plus you get lots of pictures of Cats and synths which I always think is a good thing...

In a thread on MW I came across another resource which I have received permission to repost here. Called the "Buchla Catalog" this PDF file is
a 3rd party compilation containing the most complete resource of 200e information, tips and tricks, third party module manufacturers, and more. It starts with all the information, pictures, and descriptions from the official Buchla web site (including pictures and descriptions of out of production modules) and then includes the famous (some might say infamous) Sound on Sound in depth review of the 200e system and it's individual modules. Included in this are working guides on envelopes and filtering using the various parts of the 200e that are unique to it (Timbre and Symmetry controls, the whole damn 292e, etc.) . It's an essential place to start studying for the Buchla oral finals.

The Buchla catalog was assembled by Ross Healy
and the current version is available free for download HERE. Ross is a great guy who keeps the catalog updated on his own time and dime and makes some damn fine music of his own which you can check out on his Youtube page (which also includes demos of the 200e as well).

For what it's worth I'll mention neither the "Buchla Catalog" file nor any of the forums online are endorsed or supported by Buchla and Associates. All is not lost however as despite their "hands off" philosophy of written support for the 200e they are available from their contact page to answer questions and support their products. I have written and received answers to some of my questions from all of these resources and, like modular synthesis in general, I feel a bit of all these options will yield the best results. If you know of other useful resources at this level please let me know and I'll update this post accordingly.

Bleep on professors!

Saturday, June 18, 2011


I recently watched the 2006 DVD a concert by German band Einsturzende Neubauten. I had seen them twice live and this special show, while quite expanded in instruments and stage, reminded me of the balance between sound, silence, noise, and music. They are masters of their craft and employ the same control and skill to banging on a 250 kilo turbine engine as they do plucking a bass, guitar, or whispering a processed vocal. Truly artistry at work in everything they do.

This reminded me of the challenges of making "noise" or ambient/experimental (or whatever one calls it) Music. My use of modulars and synthesizers in general stems from my desire to aurally sculpt new sounds with fades, dynamics, filter and modulation sweeps, etc. I rely heavily on mixing modules to bring new sounds up and down in the overall live performance. Having LFOs and other modulators pinging envelopes and VCAs open and closed adds an element of the synth "playing itself" back at me while I then interact by adjusting the various parameters of said modules. It's a dance many "tweaking" synthesists know well. In this sense the Buchla 200e allows itself to be "played". The 250e sequencer alone allows for semi automated controlled voltages, pulses, sub triggers, etc to flow out and be assigned to other parts of the overall system. That said it is not straight forward or even direct as more complex sequencers such as a Serge TKB. You need to get inside the computer of it and make sure it is doing what you want. And this takes time.

I have not broken the code yet. Programming, either in midi or a computerized module setting, is not my strong suit. I appreciate what the 250e is capable of in it's minimal state but continue to struggle with it's various outputs, run settings, and loop options. I can academically see it's potential but have not done the work necessary to bring myself to understand it outside of it's more mundane knob=pitch, knob=pulse time single loop functions. I'm not a synth or sequencer/drum machine newbie by any means, but the 250e is a hardware/software/modular instrument of a different color.

As I see bands and artists that have clearly spent most of their lifetime perfecting their use of unusual instruments and techniques I wonder about the balance of learning anew. I have stated before the 200e challenges the user in unique and rewarding ways and this is clearly an example of such. I have abandoned instruments in the past, most recently the Monome 40H which looked promising to me but in reality came with a learning curve and computer interaction that, for me, didn't justify it's overall potential. It's a personal decision based on available time and energy and the other instruments and life's demands than constrain that.

I believe having to work for what you want brings a new level of sophistication and satisfaction to the process. When I have played in live bands or arranged pieces for other members I find it has often been more rewarding than when I do solo work no matter how complex. To put this another way: if everything were easy to do few things would be as special.

So far the conversation I am having with the 200e has been a give and take. We don't always get along but we do work together. I recently finished a piece for an upcoming compilation and have made great progress in taming this beast to complete the task as defined and on time. But perhaps taming it is not the right way to even be looking at it. With an instrument as complex and interactive as the 200e and a musician as experienced yet set in certain ways as myself where does the control really lie?

The question is hypothetical of course but if it's not a cop out I can at least say these types of questions don't come up very often with I use a preset groove box or rompler. Perhaps the answer lies more in the process than the end result. If that is the case then certainly, modular synthesis and a "Complex Waveform Generator" is as good a companion as any to take the journey with.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Less talk, more music...

I've been working on a number of recordings the past couple of weeks.

This is not one of them:
Scratch 80 by DAEDSound

I wandered into the studio and turned on the 200e and mismatched a preset which called up the "wrong" set of oscillators and modulation routings. I've gotten in the habit of keeping a small WAV recorder handy so about twenty minutes later this track was recorded based on the happy accident.

Mostly the 259e,261e, and ZOe with some old stompbox analog delay. Mixed in Acid with my fav VST spring reverb plugin and we're done for the night.

The image above is a photo I took of the Loud Objects performance at Bentfest NYC a few years ago. I think it fits the track more or less.


Saturday, June 11, 2011

First DIY module...

In addition to all my other hats, I run which makes original and modified electronic instruments with an emphasis on DIY and circuit bending. I've made quite a few custom synth modules from PCBs and even have a few prototypes of original designs. The Buchla case I have has a lot of real estate and it was always my plan to make some custom pieces to match the 200e system.

Given the learning curve of the 200e and it's finicky nature I decided to start with a simple patch panel integrating the Buchla standard of "tinijacks" with 3.5mm, 1/4", and Banana jacks. This will allow me to easily patch my existing modulars (see previous post re: "Familiy") and it will also allow me to send audio signals to various external sources such as effects pedals, mixers, etc. The 207e mixer/output module in my system doesn't have 1/4" jacks so those were essential if I didn't want to keep using adapters. I also wanted to make it easy to keep 3.5MM and tinijacks separate since there is conflicting wisdom about using the same patch cables for these two slightly different sized jacks and the wear and tear on the connectors as a result. Finally, I wanted to allow the mixing of my large banana system as well as possible mix audio and CV signals within the 200e. Buchla and Associates have specifically designed their system NOT to do this but every other modular from the Arp 2600 to Serge do allow this. B&A used a very involved buss system which allows them to operate the preset manager and midi signals in the 200e and their reasoning is certainly sound for what they were trying to accomplish but given the expense of adding another Oscillator or even an LFO it also makes sense to wring as much utility out of what you have as possible. Hence, patching audio into a cv signal may make for some additional options or running CV into an FM input would most certainly cause some aural havoc. To my mind this is what a modular what meant to do so having that as an option once in a while is a good thing.

The panel I made has six independent sets of jacks and an independent four "tini jack" multiple for internal 200e signals in the middle. All appropriate jacks are wired to common ground. I considered making some passive attenuators but will save that for another time. For now it's a simple, clean design that does one thing and does it very well.

I still need to verify if there is any concern or technical reasons to keep the audio and CV signals and buses separate in a 200e but since using external CV signals work fine I am hoping it's safe to do the same internally. We shall see.

For a test I plugged in an old Ibanez analog delay pedal and made a simple patch of one oscillator into the pedal and out to the 207A mixer. Now guitar pedals have a different line level going in and coming out than most modular synthesizers which tend to run "hotter" so ideally there would be some attenuation involved in this. For now however I've decided to keep things simple and lo and behold it does work! Audio of some experiments to follow...

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Meet the Family...

I've been recording, releasing, and playing electronic music since the early 1990s. Those interested in hearing some of my discography can catch up from the catalog or explore the pages of my main music site What this means relevant to this blog is that the Buchla 200e is not my first modular synth and as such, part of this blog will be me figuring out how to fit it into a family of existing tools, instruments, and recording gear.

One of the reasons for starting this blog was so I could learn about the Buchla and would be sure to spend more time with it when life's other demands got hectic. In addition to family, friends, job, and the things we all deal with I balance which instrument I am going to play/practice daily and even among esoteric modular synthesizers in my studio the 200e is one of many. I understand this may not be the situation most other players have but, for me, it's one of the reasons it made sense to try a Buchla 200e. More on my rationale and thoughts on Buchla ownership as this blog progresses but given some of the feedback I have been receiving I thought it might be fun to introduce some of the other "family" the 200e shares it's space with and will eventually be talking to.

The first and main sibling is my custom ModcanA format modular. This beast consists of over 30 modules by seven different manufacturers and two power supplies. The majority of it contains modules from the two full time Modcan A format manufacturers, Modcan in Canada and Cyndustries in the US. The "A" format was designed by Bruce Duncan of Modcan and offers a unique layout of jacks and knobs unlike any other manufacturer. Modules are larger but well laid out and easy to get to even in dense patches. The "A" format offers banana jacks identical to the 200e's CV routing jacks but also uses these for audio as well.

My "A" system also contains modified or custom modules by, Encore, Doepfer, and two DIY companies Megaohm, and my own If I didn't have this system I would most definitely have not also picked up the 200e. The "A" system I own is something I've built for years and customized to get both unusual and more traditional synthesizer sounds and it gives me a strong base to come back to when I "jump off the cliff" with Buchla.

My first excursion into modular synthesis was the now very popular "Euro" format created and implemented by German company Doepfer and this format uses "standard" mini jacks commonly referred to as 1/8" (although in truth they are slightly different in size). The 200e uses jacks that look similar to this but are a different size know as "tini-jacks" and while a Euro type patch cord can be made to fit into a Buchla sytle audio port it will be slightly loose at best. Buchla patch cords do not fit into Euro jacks at all given they are slightly larger.

Most of my Euro modular is made up of Doepfer A100 modules that were purchased well over a decade ago when the company was just starting out and distributors were scarce. Euro format today offers the widest range of manufacturers and still has the most affordable entry price point of any modular system.

Next to my custom A100 system is a compilation of "Frac" modules, so named due to the "Fractional" case used that the module sizes conform to. These use "standard" 3.5mm jacks that are compatible for all Euro format modules and therefore the same caveat applies to integrating this in the Buchla audio path. My Frac system contains a wide variety of manufacturers over a decade plus of manufacturing including some DIY modules built by a few companies that are no longer in business. This is my main live modular synth when I do experimental gigs as I have designed it's module compliment to give me the biggest bang for the buck in the smallest space. Pieces in this were made by Bugbrand, Paia, Blacet, Wiard, MOTM, Metalbox, Ozzitronics, Bananalogue, and others.

There are other instruments including a Synton Fenix and handfuls of keyboards, drum machines, etc but in all of these the Buchla stands alone. As of now, she is still sitting on my kitchen table where she has been since arrival the end of May:

We're not quite ready to meet the family yet and even if we were the Buchla requires certain conditions to be met in interface, scaling, etc. This isn't really an issue however. There is enough for me to learn one on one with the 200e and at this point I'm in no rush to complicate an already extraordinarily complicated instrument.

For those curious and not total synth geeks you can find out more about Modular Synthesis history, current manufacturers, formats, etc. at the great page:

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Buchla Go BOOOooooooOMmm...

I've been working on a new track using the 200e and keep coming back to an interesting sound I discovered while trying to explore the 261E . One thing I have noticed with the 200e that is a bit surprising to me is how BASSy it gets. When looking for info on the sounds of the 200e I heard a lot about the digital characteristics and sound of the oscillators and the FM and wavetable features but not much on it's traditional analog capabilities. Fair enough, the 259e is a marvel of modern synthesis and Buchla and assoc have worked hard to tame this beast with all sorts of digital routing, Midi options, and computer organized and operated features. I'll even admit it leans toward more digital sounding synthesis which even my own Demo from this blog here illustrates.

But for all it's digital capabilities the 200e is still, at heart, an ANALOG modular synthesizer which takes full advantage of control voltage and old school features.

Prior to having one here in at the Help Wanted Productions studio most of the demos and info I came across showed it's more metallic and, for lack of a better term, "ping crazy" bell-like tones. The 281e Envelopes have a setting that make it easy to get that well known light bouncing plink sound (more on that in another post) but with a little coaxing I was able to repeatedly run into some very rich bass heavy tones as well. I'm using one of these to build a track and uploaded a short loop of the low end sound I'm referring to here: (Warning: This is a bit, well, Boooomy :) )

Buchla Bass Loop by DAEDSound

One of the tricks for this is the 292e "VCA" module which allows you to add some combined voltage controlled filter and envelope gate. It's very organic and round sounding and pretty much anything sent through that will get a bit of low end to it. But the main ingredient in this is the Mod Osc in the 261e itself.

I'm sure someone will confirm or correct me but it's my understanding the waves in the 261e are analog. They sure as hell sound like it. The 261e has a variable waveform Modulating Oscillator which can be tuned manually or via CV in. More importantly, the wave shape can be CV controlled and on the direct output of this it seems all wave forms have a smooth buttery type feel to them. Nothing harsh at all and quite contrary to the other sharp and digital sounds of the 259e or even heavily modulated sounds of the other side of this module on the Main Osc outputs.

When combined with the woody 292e this output can be downright wall shaking. Throw some modulation into the WShape CV in and it comes alive in a very traditional 808ish Bass type way.

For the demo sample above I have some chaos from the Source of Uncertainty 266e module slapping the waveshape CV in. The 266e is being triggered by the Pulse out of the 250e which is sending gates and pitch info to the 281e/292e and other oscillators.

Again, I submit this post for those who are curious or concerned about the 200e's ability to make classic analog synth sounds. In this case the Complex Oscillator is doing it without any help from it's timbre section as well. I usually get a bass Boooom sound by sending a Sine wave into a lowpass filter with the resonance cranked UP and the Cutoff minimal. Here, one section of one side of the 261e is doing most of the work with some color from the 292e. In the track I'm using this on I switch between both and gate only mode on the 292e which does affect the tone but the bass low end is still there and LOUD.

How low can you go indeed.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


I don't know if it's obvious or not but I never knew the Buchla 259e had two simultaneous wavebanks. The notes from Buchla and Associates are skint and there has been a long standing tradition of encouraging users to learn and figure things out themselves in modular synthesis. By poking around with some of the other modules and studying the faceplates and buttons a bit more I am starting to see that there are all sorts of additional or alternative features built in. One of the more basic ones I've figured out so far is how to access, program, and morph between the two wave banks on the 259e

I have an earlier panel of the 259e which says "Complex" Waveform Oscillator on it. Current versions say "Twisted" and have a slightly different legend but both can run identical updated firmware so in effect the unit I am using is the latest "Twisted" version. The following info is based on the legending on my unit but it works the same on the same buttons, lights, etc on the current version.

Both 259E panels feature the morph feature in the upper right hand Timbre section. There one will find the vertical wavebank lights and directly under that the "select Button". On the left hand above this is a green LED which corresponds to the green LED on the left of the Morph knob above. Likewise on the right hand side above the selelct button is a red led which corresponds to the red led on the right of the morph button.

Simple enough? Well not quite as pressing the Select button does change the waveforms but only within the selected bank. In order to go from Bank A (Green) to Bank B (Red) you need to press and HOLD the Select button. This will then change the LED and pressing it again in short bursts will cycle through the waveforms within that bank as "normal". The picture on the left shows the module with bank A (Green) selected and in this mode pressing the select button will scroll through those waveforms. Also not the Morph knob is all the way to the left and only the green LED is lit. At this point only the Green waveforms are being heard.

Once you have selected the waveform you wish to use you press and hold the Select button until it changes to Bank B (Red). The picture on the right shows what this looks like. At this point only bank B is available both to scroll though and in the audio out.

The fun begins when you start to mix and match. By using the Morph knob you can manually adjust the volume balance of each bank in the mix. Again all the way left is 100% Bank A, all the way to the right is 100% Bank B. Dead center is a 50/50 mix of the two audio outputs.

Of course this a modular piece and a Buchla at that so there are many ways to mix and match the two wave banks. You can patch a CV into the upper right hand black CV In jack in the Timbre section and by adjusting the corresponding knob you can sweep between the two leaning one way or the other. Additionally the Mod Type section allows you to select "Morph" as one of the destinations of the Mod Osc so you can sweep through those options (use short presses of the gray Mod Type select button) until "Morph" is highlighted. Now you can adjust how much Mod Osc affects the morph by the Modulation Index knob above. As you would imagine a slow LFO type sweep with a softer waveform does a delicate mixing of the two banks. If you run the Mod Osc into audio levels and choose a pulse or similar waveform you get almost FM type oscillations. And none of this is actually modulating pitch in any way yet.

Here is an audio demo of the Morph feature:
Demo of Buchla 259e Morph Feature by DAEDSound

A future post will demo how radical CV processing can alter the 259e but as you can see with no external control at all there is a lot going on in just the Morph features.

As a side note, I don't know if they exist but I have never seen any info on WHAT the waveforms are inside the 259e. I'm not entirely sure how many there are even. I suppose this goes with the "plug in and find out" mentality but given the wide variety of modulations available, I think it would be useful to know a bit more about the sounds and options that you use as a base.