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Modular in a Vacation

I have a lot of projects that get started and never finished. Now, started has a lot of values. The most common value for started is, “I did a lot of research and now have a ton of references.” The next most common, perhaps most common, is “I bought some stuff.” Third, regardless of what holds first place, is “I bought some stuff and got started, but stalled and didn’t finish.”

For fun, here is a partial list of items in group three:

  1. N scale model railroad, whose foamcore benchwork is made, and all the track for phase one is here but hasn’t been touched in quite a bit.
  2. HO scale model railroad. Actually, that’s still in phase two with plenty of things bought, but nothing started. I have multiple locomotives, plenty of track, trucks, couplers, and similar hardware for some cars.
  3. Low Roman workbench. The top is laminated and two of four holes for legs drilled.
  4. Converting a cheap Harbor Freight plane to a scrub plane. I have the plane and have pulled out the blade to start grinding. This is also part of the “reason” #3 is stalled.
  5. Building a computer out of TLL logic, specifically a PDP-8 clone. I have my clock circuit on a breadboard and most if not all of the needed logic chips.
  6. Build an ELF: I have most if not all of the components. I was subbing AT-Tiny chips and cheap 8-segment displays for the original self-decoding displays. I have the AT-Tinys programming.
  7. Saint Johns’s reading, which I have all of freshman year’s books. In fairness to me, that was going okay until just before the heart attack. It will return in February.

There are plenty more, but that’s enough self-indictment for one blog post. This isn’t about unfinished projects. It is about yet another project I want to do and have inspiration from someone who had it as a group three project only to finally finish it.

Kristian Blåsol wanted a modular synthesizer. He joined a group working on building them together. He got a box of kits and single row rack. He populated the rack with a power supply and a single, lovely oscillator. Which, as it put it, was fun to play with for about 10 minutes. Then it sat for a long time.

About two years ago, he decided he was going to have a modular synth. He gave himself a week from when he started construction to have one, using no more than 4 hours a day. He documented this on YouTube. Starting at the end of the second day, he published jams of the equipment as it stood then. Were these modules, and the synth they comprised, equal to even a medium quality EuroRack system, much less any Moog or Buchla modular? No, but they are a lot better than the modular synth I have.

I’m not sure I can find four hours a day every day for a week with my current job. What I can set aside is a week of vacation. We are a use it or lose it company. I get four weeks. I also have a week from last year rolled over despite the policy. This was an exception made for COVID.

So, what if I planned a slightly different “Modular in a Vacation” project? Having watched Kristian’s videos, I can do this if I follow his process, even if I don’t build his exact modules. What do I consider his approach?

First, the week was about construction. It was not about designing modules or finding existing designs. It was not about generating parts lists and ordering parts. Kristen did all that prior, so when he got up in the morning on day one, he had schematics ready to print out or already printed out. He had the parts at his workshop, perhaps organized into kits and maybe not. He had his plasticware container ready to serve as a primitive rack (seriously, check out the video for this, it is a big part of the inspiration).

Second, he picked relatively simple modules. Even his most full-featured oscillator, the one that can be a true 1V/Octave VCO, is a reasonably straight forward circuit, although it does require paired transistors.

Third, and this is related to the second thing, he was not concerned with top quality. Present in all phases, from the selection of circuits to the use of stripboard in construction to the plasticware case, is a mindset of “get it working.” You can do this in a modular, especially one built to be compatible with Eurorack standards. Each module can be replaced by something better over time. I think this is under-appreciated. Many people, myself included, certainly have issues with perfectionism. While something like a modular has anti-perfectionism built in, anything expandable and reconfigurable says, “I have no perfect form,” sometimes you can forget that. Something like “Modular in a Week” emphasizes this fact.

In case it was not obvious, I’m signing onto my “Modular in a Vacation” idea. The goal is, over a week’s vacation at home, to build a basic modular setup. Day one, I’ll start with a case and power supply. I will then do individual modules on the rest of the vacation, up to nine whole days, a week off work, and the bracketing weekends.

I watched part of the playlist for the first time on MLK Day. I’ve been taking down ideas since then. I have one advantage over Kristen, a complete set of Electronotes publications. I have a list of types of modules I want to include without counts. I have a bit less variety, but I do have a specific direction. I want to build the four basic patches in the book Modular Synth Master Volume 0. I won’t say this is the best book on synth patches or even a good one. I only bought it last week. I will say it gives me a jumping-off point: “what is the minimal collection of modules needed to make these patches?” The next step is to pick designs for all those patches.

I know I’ll have one module not on the book list but on Kristen’s list. I’m going to make a version of the C40106 hex oscillator module. I had a different faceplate design for the “HexGrid” Oscillator in my notebook before finishing the videos. I also have a completed schematic in KiCad for this module.

I would like to use the first VCO from The Preferred Circuits Handbook from Elekcronotes, but it is not a simple build. I may use the simpler All Circuits oscillator, which is similar in design but has fewer outputs. I have also considered the Look Mum No Computer oscillator, based on the CEM3440 chip. I need something tunable I can build in about three hours.

There is one other place where I know what I want. Of the possible filters, at the very least, I want to have a clone or close derivative of the filter from the Soviet Polivoks synthesizer. I’ve never played one, but I think it would be fair to call it the “Soviet MiniMoog.” The filter is very crunch (featured starting at about 1:30 in the video above). Several derivatives and clones exist, and schematics are on the net.

I’ll post as I finalize and decide on items. The first big choice is Moog Units or EuroRack. Nearly all commercial modules are EuroRack which make it the practical choice. As someone interested in live-manipulation and artistry the greater space on the Moog Unit call to me. We’ll see if the artistic or practical side wins when jacks are ordered, and a case is built.

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