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Mylar Melodies
Mylar Melodies, sharing his love for Eurorack at Deer Shed in July.

Mylar Melodies chats with Deer Shed director Oliver Jones

I will come clean: I am obsessed with music technology having been a jaded recording engineer back in the days when I had a fringe. When I'm not busy being a jaded festival director I am to be found mucking about with guitars and synthesizers, and usually creating nothing that's any good.

Hence, the music technology bit of the science tent growing bigger every year and why I'm beyond myself with excitement that Mylar Melodies -AKA Alex - has agreed to come along to the science tent this year and bring along some Eurorack.

At this point, a bit of background! Eurorack is a format of modular synthesis which has become increasingly popular over recent years with many small boutique manufacturers making modules which are all the same height. Modules are housed in racks and connected together to form custom musical instruments with an almost infinite number of sound generating possibilities ('standard' synthesizers typically have a fixed architecture.)

Alex was the gateway into the world of Eurorack for me, and I'm sure many others, especially if you spend too much time on his YouTube channel. His enthusiasm for music technology and Eurorack in particular is infectious. Alex has very kindly agreed to answer some of my questions in advance of the festival, so here goes.

A warm welcome to Deer Shed Alex. Whilst you are a fan of music technology in general, you are best known for your love of Eurorack as so eloquently conveyed on your YouTube channel. What is it about modular that makes you want to share this passion?

Well, firstly thanks for having me! Excited to hang out in my native land and bang on about one of my favourite subjects!

So there's this amazing community in Eurorack, both of manufacturers and users. If you have a problem with a module and email the company, in many cases your reply will be from the inventor themselves - it's so utterly unlike the corporate world. And my concern was that, in some cases, the core of what actually makes these products so exciting was getting missed, or could at least be shown off a bit better. So I started making videos to try and ram home what I was finding so exciting about the format and its modules.

A modular synth can be anything. With well over 1000 modules available, you can (budget permitting) design your dream synthesizer, effects processor, sequencer, drum machine - anything. It could be a wild blend of digital and analogue, with the ability to improvise and inject its own personality into what you do with it. It could be spitting out beats and melodies all at once - so much so that you could entirely do away with a computer in your studio, and make music purely using this one case. You could be making ideas in real time which you can never possibly hope to recreate...so you'd better be recording! It's the perfect antidote to years of making music with just a keyboard and mouse.

Have you seen the recent explosion in Eurorack making its way into contemporary music? Has it ushered in a different way of creating music? For example, have you heard any music recently that you are convinced must have been made using an Intellijel Metropolis (a highly desirable sequencer that I can't afford)?!

Well, Factory Floor certainly own Metropolis going by this article. But in contemporary music it's hard to tell - except perhaps for records like The Inheritors by James Holden, where you can sense it's been pieced together from modular jams. Frankly I think software and real analogue are very hard to distinguish in a blind listening test, but this isn't the point of hardware. Just because I can recreate the exact sound of a hardware vintage synth on software doesn't mean I'll actually bother to undergo the process, or enjoy it necessarily. I spend my day in front of a computer, so I'm much more inclined to spend an evening exploring a piece of hardware than software, and I'm more inclined to take it out live with me.

Live is where modular truly shines in my opinion! There is a wave of (predominantly techno artists: Surgeon, Blawan, Ansome, Factory Floor, and my favourite, Steevio) who are either incorporating Eurorack into their sets or exclusively using it, with an emphasis on improvisation. And I mean literally...many are entirely improvising the set with no rhythms or patterns stored in memory. Of course they ARE prepared: they have spent months or years developing a specific arrangement of modules that allows them to act and react on the fly. Frankly, for me, that is the best expression of what live electronic music can be - unrepeatable and truly live - the opposite of "just pressing play". And if Eurorack can change what audiences expect of live electronic music, that would be quite a thing.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith (a modular artist playing at Field Day this year) turned away from making music with a band mid-album after becoming seduced by a Buchla 100. To what extent does Eurorack enable solo musicians to continue to work productively? How does the fact that modular patches cannot be easily saved or recalled affect the way you make music? Are you more committed?

You have to be! Since you can't ever really save a patch, you have no choice but to record the idea you've dialled in, as you won't get the chance to record it ever again. In the case of performing live, what happens onstage can never be exactly - or even closely - repeated anywhere. A well specified eurorack system could be the only synth you really need in a studio - a small system could be able to create more sounds than you have years left to explore them in. But that is also a curse. Fixed, non-modular synths may have a narrower palette but they are much faster to operate, and many incorporate memories for instant sound recall. There is no question that a modular can be dangerous if you have deadlines to meet. The only solution I can think of to this is discipline. And that is, by its very nature, in short supply for a modular addict. The good bit is it's quite possible to design a system to allow one operator to create beats and melodies (with some machine help from certain modules) solo, in a way that would be harder with a tabletop of separate, non-modular boxes. So it's not only doable, but people are doing it!

What is your favourite bit of music tech and why? What is your favourite module?

It's the computer, I'm afraid! If you have a decent computer, a piece of music production software and access to the internet, you already have more samples, free software and synths than you will ever truly master - it's the most versatile instrument. But the sheer possibilities of the computer make it an overwhelming thing to work with, sometimes - so I think many choose to regress to hardware specifically because of its limitations - limitations often inspire creativity.

For fixed synths - there's no question that it's my Juno 60, which is incredibly simple, and just sounds, and looks gorgeous...all the time. Unlike the modular!

But yes. Even I would be hard pressed to say that I would get rid of the modular before I got rid of the Juno...sorry Juno. Fortunately I could bankroll a new Juno by selling a few unused modules!

As for my favourite module...it has to be the Eurorack legend that is MATHS. The original red-lightning bolt model of course, which has warmer, richer, more vintage modulation curves. I should shout out my current revelation...the Noise Engineering Basimilus Iteritas Alter...which is, on the face of it, a percussion module, except if you feed it a load of voltages and gates it's capable of creating an ENTIRE rhythm section, and bass, and effects, in one tiny module. It's insane. It's also a good example of how some of the most exciting things in eurorack are digital modules - not analogue.

If you could design your dream Eurorack module, what would it do?

I don't know exactly how it'd work, but it would be a perfect and magical blend of multi-channel-sequencer that I could operate in real time that would contain generative probabilistic possibilities whilst being able to dial in exact sequences in a heartbeat, and be able to switch and transform its melodies on a sixpence. The 'perfect' improvisation sequencer. Whatever that is. There are several sequencers that could be described that way too...I'm trying as many out as I can. There are so many. Maybe it already exists. In fact, maybe I already own it, and the problem is me.

Eurorack is an addictive hobby to start, all of those empty slots in your case that need filling, but if you were to be starting out today with say £500-£1000 to spend, what would you recommend to get started with (not strictly 100% Eurorack)?

There are some amazing semi-modular synths, one of which you could get first as they'll act as a springboard/leg up to building a modular proper by taking care of the essential building blocks (and bonuses like a sequencer), at great price-to-feature ratio. So the Arturia MicroBrute, the Moog Mother-32, Doepfer Dark Energy and Make Noise 0-Coast could all fit the bill in different ways. Then you could look at a Eurorack case to start adding on actual modules to that. The Tiptop Audio Happy Ending Kit is still the cheapest all-in-one power-plus-case starter, but I'd recommend getting a two-row (aka "6U") case as you will want a bit more room, it's not cost effective to buy small cases once you get the bug, frankly. So scour second hand sites for someone's old Doepfer LC6 or LC9 case. Then you have a world of modules available. Personally I'd start off with some digital modules - the versatile Mutable Instruments Braids oscillator, or perhaps their Clouds (a hybrid of effect/sampler/oscillator), and maybe a Doepfer filter, some LFOs, some basic utilities, a dual VCA and some attenuators. You miiiight be able to squeeze the majority of that into £1000 if you bargained hard, second hand. But be warned that this is a hobby that adds up. But hey, as mid life crisises go, it's cheaper than a Porsche.

This is a bit of a curve ball question! Here we go. Whilst we have great bands around today, a few commentators might argue that nothing truly ground-breaking has happened in music since 1993 (but that's another conversation). Do you see music technology being the driver that moves things on? I'm thinking about modular and A.I. technologies in particular.

Personally my music is unquestionably shaped by the tools I have available. If you have a piano, you make piano music. Of course you can lay objects on the strings to create PREPARED piano, but the limitations of the instrument are there and it's up to you to impose your own will on it, within the boundaries available. Yet still in the case of the piano, there remains an infinite number of pieces of music to be written and styles to be discovered on what is arguably a simple instrument, tonally.

And while music technology has never been more advanced and never been cheaper or more available to anyone, it's still up to people to actually be creative and do different things with that technology. While there is equipment and software that can automatically write music, these tools are made, and have their parameters determined by, the limited human imagination - and a human is always the gatekeeper to the bit of randomness you actually get to hear.

So the limitation really is always us, and our open-mindedness to what music could be. And tools can be habit forming, which doesn't lend itself to discovering new music. Maybe we need new tools? Maybe we just need more open minds.

Don't miss Alex at the festival - he will be welcoming synthesizer-curious folks at the Science tent with a performance modular and some compact synthesizers. Get hands on and make some live music, with his expert guidance - no experience required!

Thank you Alex, we'll see you in July!

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