As with other recent Make Noise releases, we've been treated the past week with cryptic graphics and blinking lights on Instagram, complete with lush reverberance and a distinctly Make Noise sonic twang. Today marked the announcement and release of the 0-CTRL: the company's second standalone offering, following in the footsteps of the wildly successful 0-Coast desktop synth.
Clearly meant to act as a companion to the 0-Coast, the 0-CTRL is a touch plate based keyboard/sequencer that evokes classic approaches to West Coast synthesis control. Complete with capacitive touch control, arbitrarily tunable key values, and interactive sequencing control, the 0-CTRL is like a modern-day interpretation of the Serge TKB, Buchla 216, and other classic playing interfaces.
But why make a standalone touch sequencer?
Modular Synthesis in 2020: Small Systems and Desktop Devices
Not just but a couple of days ago, my friends and I were talking about the current landscape of modular synthesis. It seems that, in the past few years, many synthesists' focuses have shifted away from building large, endlessly capable systems and toward building compact, portable, and focused setups. This has been tremendously exciting, as it often means that musicians are really honing their own voices and making well-considered decisions about how to fit everything they musically need into a small space without sacrificing their own needs for general performability—and often, these small setups have far more personality and individual identity than towering, formidable systems of every-module-you've-ever-seen-and-then-some.
And as this trend has developed, we've also seen a focus from manufacturers on making self-contained, standalone instruments that embody modular concepts. Moog's Mother-32, Behringer's Neutron, and of course, not least of all...Make Noise's 0-Coast, one of the first truly notable popular instruments that started the current wave. And the 0-Coast, for us, has always held a special place amongst these: it somehow feels like it best embodies the experimental spirit of modular synthesis while still maintaining the approachability of a monosynth. However, the 0-Coast is, for the most part, only a synth voice: while it does have MIDI and CV input and loads of options for generative patching, it doesn't have extensive capabilities built in for sequencing or hands-on control. And in fact, this is the case with many standalone desktop semi-modular synths—and we've just kind of been waiting to see if any truly interesting desktop CV controllers would eventually come along. We've seen a few (from companies like Korg, Hungry Robot, and Teenage Engineering), but it seemed strange that one of the big Eurorack companies hadn't yet stepped up to the challenge.
So of course, as soon as we saw images online that suggested Make Noise might be introducing a new touch controller, we were super excited at the possibility a new standalone device might be coming along. And while an updated Pressure Points module or new Eurorack-format sequencer would've been welcome, I'm personally thrilled that we've wound up in a world with the 0-CTRL: a device that, for me, might just turn the many disembodied synth voices into much more capable, interactive instruments.
But Wait...This Looks Familiar
So all those thoughts about ethos aside, what is the 0-CTRL? At first glance it looks very similar to Make Noise's classic modular controller, the Pressure Points + Brains combo. Pressure Points and Brains combine to form a combination touch plate keyboard and three-track sequencer, great for everything from classic, straight ahead sequencing to experimental approaches to user interaction. Now in production for a decade, Pressure Points and Brains were among Make Noise's first modules, following the popular Maths, QMMG, and Wogglebug (as well as the Moddemod and Format Jumbler). At the time, Pressure Points provided one of the most compelling dedicated playing interfaces for Eurorack synths altogether: prior approaches had been primarily sequencer or keyboard-based, but Pressure Points brought a taste of classic West Coast instruments' playing interfaces (a la Buchla and Serge) to Eurorack for the first time. And, like all Make Noise modules, they've remained popular and inspiring throughout their entire run.
And while 0-CTRL definitely borrows elements from the Pressure Points, Make Noise clearly thought about how they could best make the 0-CTRL a self-sufficient device for augmenting any CV-capable instrument. Of course, when paired with the 0-Coast, you wind up with a distinctly Music Easel-inspired instrument approach...however, 0-CTRL is fully compatible with any CV-able synth that uses Eurorack signal levels.
0-CTRL or...Lots of CTRL?
At its core, 0-CTRL can be seen as a three-track, eight-stage sequencer, or as a keyboard/preset voltage controller with three tunable voltages per key. When you press a touch plate, voltages determined by three knobs above it pass through to three CV outputs on the top of the unit. This can be great for creating melodies or harmonies—but of course, these three voltages can be used to control any aspect of the sound. When used as a sequencer, these outputs switch between the values above each key—turning it into a remarkably powerful, multi-track sequence controller. And of course, there are individual gate outputs for each key/stage, as well as master key pressure outputs and a touch gate output, making it easy to use as a tunable, expressive keyboard controller. But wait...that sounds kind of like Pressure Points and Brains, right?
One of the biggest differences with 0-CTRL is that it has its own built-in clock source, which can be activated and deactivated using the plates in the bottom left of the panel. And while that might seem at first like a trivial detail, it's actually quite significant. Not only does this give the 0-CTRL the ability to act as its own self-sufficient sequencer...it gives it the ability to start to control itself in some novel ways. In one recent interview, designer Tony Rolando points to the Buchla 248 Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator (MARF) as a source of inspiration—one of whose key set of features was the ability to use one row of sliders to define the CV output from the sequencer, and another row to control the sequencer's own per-stage timing. The bottom row on the 0-CTRL is normalled to the internal clock generator's rate CV input, making it possible to use to vary the duration of each sequence stage. Additionally, there are plenty of other controls for altering the sequencer's behavior: a dedicated touch plate for reversing the sequence direction, a touch plate that determines whether or not touching the keys interrupts the sequence, gate inputs for reset and direction, and more.
One of the other really interesting and unique features of the 0-CTRL is the dynamic envelope section. The second row of knobs is normalled to a parameter called "Strength"—and this alludes to a parameter altogether uncommon in sequencers and touch keyboards. The 0-CTRL features a couple of special outputs at the upper right corner: a dynamic gate and dynamic envelope output. "Strength" determines the overall amplitude of these outputs. Of course, amplitude control for a gate output is pretty uncommon...but it works splendidly with the 0-Coast's Contour circuit, and can be a great source of control for lowpass gates or VCAs when you need dynamic gating of any type of signal. Of course, this can also be used as a way of turning gates on and off per stage, creating a controllable gate sequence. The dynamic envelope output is a decay-only envelope whose amplitude is determined by Strength and whose decay time is determined by the Time parameter...so it becomes an excellent source of plucky, dynamic control, ideal for opening up the 0-Coast's Dynamics input, sweeping its Balance control, or for turning any filter, VCA, or LPG into a bouncy, responsive control.
Best of all, 0-CTRL makes all of these parameters playable, striking a balance between predictable sequencing, unpredictable behavior, and exploratory play. Switch your sequence direction at the touch of a plate, or interweave the 0-CTRL with another device for a web of sonic interaction. And of course, it feels in many ways like it turns the 0-Coast (or of course, other standalone devices) into entirely new, complete instruments.
Use it to get your hands directly involved in the evolution of your sounds, or simply to bring an extra level of animation and playfulness to a familiar piece of gear. Often, all that it takes to find new inspiration in an old instrument is to find a new way of controlling it. And in this way, the 0-CTRL taps into what is so clever about all Make Noise instruments: it combines excellent build quality and a well-considered feature set with an immediate and playful design, one that makes it clear that making music doesn't have to be about setting goals or keeping up with deadlines or adhering to rules...instead, it can simply be about discovering enjoyment in experiencing something new.