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Exploring Organic Analog Synthesis With Richard Nicol

Pittsburgh Modular Now and Then

Perfect Circuit · 05/15/20

In one of our recent Perfect Circuit Chat live streams our hosts Trovarsi, Trevor, and BBoy Tech Report had the pleasure of talking to Richard Nicol, the founder of one of the most well-known modern synthesizer brands—Pittsburgh Modular Synthesizers.

While they started quite early in the Eurorack market, the brand has transformed significantly over the years, continuously carrying the torch of innovation. PGH Modular today is a platform for designing unique analog synthesizers inspired by the natural world more than anything else. The company's versatile instruments and modules are the result of the active collaboration between its founder Richard Nicol and circuit designer Michael Johnsen.

Patch Breakdown

Richard kicked off the stream with a high-energy performance inspired by early 80s EBM acts like Front 242. Every element of the set was sculpted using Pittsburgh's modules from across the eras. After the performance Richard kindly broke down his patch, and in doing so provided some interesting ideas to approaching both synthesis and performance.

No matter how open the modular format is, being humans we always resort to particular habits. While such predisposition can be undesirable in some situations, it is also often useful in others. For example, when approaching a live performance it is helpful to have some constants in the setup—instruments and patches that you can depend on.

In Richard's case, like predictably in many other beat-music oriented setups, such unwavering elements are kick drum, and bass. In our guests system, the role of a kick is flawlessly performed by pinging the low pass gate module, which responds with a tremendous amount of low end. The bassline is sculpted using Pittsburgh's Voltage Lab synthesizer, and specifically relying on its unique wave warping circuit.

The rhythm section in Richard's set also featured two additional distinct percussion tracks. One was created by running the Double Helix Oscillator through PGH's signature Low Pass Gate (or Dynamic VCA) and wavefolder. The second percussion was synthesized via the brand's classic DNA Symbiotic Waves digital oscillator, modulated by random voltage fluctuations. Collectively, all the rhythmic structures were driven by the Lifeforms Percussion Sequencer module.

Finally, the underlying drone bed accompanying the entirety of the set was created using the brand's upcoming subtractive synth voice, the SV1-B. While different from the original SV1 synth only aesthetically, this synth represents something that potentially sets Pittsburgh Modular apart from many other Eurorack manufacturers, and that is their focus on developing complete instruments over single modules. Of course, the company does release amazing modules consistently, but as Richard mentions in the conversation, there is a bit more satisfaction for him as a designer in providing the musician with a complete, self-sufficient instrument. This, not surprisingly, leads us towards the discussion of the latest addition to PGH Modular's family of instruments—the Voltage Research Laboratory, and the no-controller version, Voltage Lab Blackbox.

Voltage Research Laboratory

VRL is a self sufficient semi-modular instrument inspired by the classic west-coast synthesizers of the 20th century, and in large principles and philosophies developed by Don Buchla and Serge Tcherepnin. In the simplest terms, Voltage Research Laboratory can be seen as the Pittsburgh Modular version of the Music Easel—a musical canvas with a complete set of tools for never-ending sonic creation and discovery.

Duplexity reads across the Voltage Lab, as it is designed such that almost every element has a pair: two oscillators, two envelopes, two dynamic VCAs. This immediately promotes a potential for interaction between all the modules before everything gets glued and textured by the analog delay (which, by the way, is already available separately as a Eurorack module). There are also plenty of utility tools available, like a sample and hold circuit with a dedicated noise source, random voltage generator, and a MIDI to CV converter, so that the instrument can be easily integrated with a variety of setups.

The Touch Controller on the VRL also has a very interesting layout. Inspired by Buchla's 5-step Sequential Voltage Source, the module features ten touchplates for playing and programming sequences. While this design by no means limits the user to just ten steps, as Richard points out, it inevitably forces us to think differently, delivering interesting and novel results. Another important aspect of the controller design is how intuitive and tactile it is. Richard initially came up with the idea to fill his personal need as something reliable and easy to use for scoring silent films in a dark theater.

In talking about the early conceptualizing of the instrument, Richard revealed that the Blackbox version, which has no touch controller, was the initial goal, primarily based on utilizing the same enclosure as the SV1-B. But as it happens with ideas and projects often, it started to grow, new elements were being added—all serving the purpose of creating the complete sonic research ecosystem. Such, the Voltage Research Laboratory was born.

What the Future Holds

While we all are patiently waiting for the Voltage Research Lab to reappear on the shelves of synth stores and desks of our favorite artists and producers, we can't help but wonder about some of the other things that PGH Modular have been working on. One such thing is the Lifeforms Cascading Delay Network module, initially shown during NAMM show this year.

Featuring four delay lines interacting with each other, this module is able to easily shift between simple echos, multitap rhythmic patterns, and spacy reverbs—and it can even act as a crazy sound source on its own. Users are presented with a selection of five distinct modes, which differ by means of how the delay lines are mixed together, as well as the routing of the feedback path. Dedicated inputs on each delay channel and three outputs (two per delay pair, and one for all) open up the possibility to parallel process sounds further, and to achieve yet more wild results by self-patching the module.

While, given the nature of Pittsburgh Modular, one would expect the unit to be all analog, in this case the company selected the famous Princeton PT2399 digital karaoke chips as, Richard explains, stacking four Bucket Brigade chips produced an unusable amount of noise. This definitely provides a unique flavor to the Cascading Delay Network, and by no means makes it lose the organic sound and feel that PGH's instruments are known for.

We are hoping that the release of CDN is not too far delayed, and that despite all the roadblocks set by the nature of current times we'll be able to make some wild drones with it very soon. We know you do too. In the meantime, we can carve out 28 HP of free space in our systems, and patch around it. Also, Richard has been doing great hours-long streams of building and breaking apart patches, so be sure to check them out here.