Nord Modular virtual modular synthesizer

The Clavia Nord Modular (original rack version) is the center of the slowburn setup. All of the synth sounds are sequenced and synthesized on this machine. The original live set we played at Burning Man consisted of two Nord Modulars making all the sounds and two Kurzweil KSP8 effects processors doing all the effects (our friend and sometimes collaborator Bryan Campbell also joined us for a couple of the performances using an x0xb0x). Each Nord Modular had a set of four patches for each song, so each of us had four sets of sequences we could mix in and out and control. Additionally, sequences were in most cases compatible across songs, so one of us could slowly transition to a new song while the other one kept playing the older one, resulting in a continuous mix of music. You can hear a recording of what the hour long set sounded like here.

For this studio version of the music, we are sticking with the Nord Modulars as our primary sound source, but adding some additional external effects boxes to spice things up. The Nord is extremely flexible, indeed probably one of the most versatile synthesizers ever created, but it still has a recognizable sound and character that will always be there. And that’s the danger of recording an entire album’s worth of music with one synthesizer; at some point the sounds you make will all start to kind of sound the same. With a live set this is less of a concern, because the audience will only be listening to the performance one time. When you listen to an album repeatedly, though, the similarities between songs start becoming much more apparent, which is something several people told us about our first studio album. Perhaps we’re just a little paranoid of the same thing happening again, but by using a variety of external effects processors, we’re hoping to be able to take off some of the Nord’s edge and make things interesting enough that you don’t notice the similarities as much. In any case, limiting ourselves to using only one synthesizer provides a nice challenge, and more importantly, gives us a good excuse to buy and play with and learn how to properly (and improperly) use a bunch of weird random effects.

The Nord Modular is an extremely cool and flexible synthesizer. It’s a modular synthesizer, which basically means it’s very configurable and can do a lot of different things. The way it works is you connect a bunch of simple (and sometimes not so simple) modules together using an editor on your computer, ending up with something that sort of looks like a Rube Goldberg like device. Here’s an example of a patch from the slowburn set:

Pretty complicated looking, huh? For a Nord Modular patch it’s actually pretty basic stuff, it’s just doing several very basic things at once: choosing what note sequences to play, synthesizing a sound to play them with, and assigning controllers to various things so you can control both those note sequences and the charactereistics of the sound with various knobs. None of our patches do any of these things in a particularly innovative way, but they do a lot of things simultaneously, so they end up looking complicated. The best part of this convoluted looking mess? Once you finish it up and save it in the Nord Modular itself, you can disconnect the computer and never have to look at it again, but you can still recall and use the whole configuration at any time.

What’s really cool about this is that you can program it to be a self contained music machine. You might have noticed from the picture on top that our Nord Modular doesn’t have any keys. Instead of playing it in the way you would play a piano, you pre-program in individual sequences of notes, and then assign some method for triggering and changing those sequences. The way we did it was pretty simple: for each part, you have one knob that selects between the various sequences that have been programmed in. As you turn the knob, the synth changes from one sequence to another, and a new melody is played. You can also patch together much more interesting sequences that contain semi-random elements, or that are affected by multiple knobs/controllers, or use pre-determined logical rules to decide what to play, or all of the above at once. Cool stuff, and those are just the notes to play! Then you have to patch together some modules that make a sound…

The original slowburn set consisted of fourteen songs, each of which had eight patches like the one above. While there were a lot of similarities between the patches, every single one was different, every one required unique melodic sequences, and every sound was created from scratch for that patch. You do the math, that’s a lot of patches! Our ambient set was loosely based on sequencer driven modular synth acts from the 70’s, in particular, Tangerine Dream. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t have the ability to recall entire new modular configurations at the press of the button, they had to do it the hard way by moving cables around and twisting knobs frantically. Even doing so, they were constrained by the laws of physics and there was basically no way for them to accomplish technically (creatively is another matter entirely…) what the Nord allowed us to do extremely easily. It really is a fantastic little box.

Picture of Tangerine Dream with their modular synths from The Archive Plus via Matrixsynth

Yet another cool thing about the Nord Modular is that it is flexible enough to be used in many different ways. We decided to focus primarily on melodic and control aspects when designing patches, to create a melodically interesting hour or two of continuous music. This resulted in over a hundred similarly structured but nevertheless musically interesting patches. We could have taken the same synth and spent the same amount of time working on just one really interesting and innovative patch that did crazy and weird and new things with sequences and/or synthesis. It’s an extremely flexible synthesizer and we can’t recommend it enough to anyone who is interested in really learning synthesis.