As electronic music instrument gatherings go, Chicago’s Knobcon is a modestly-sized affair compared to Superbooth and NAMM. But, with a dynamic selection of the latest modular, wavetable synths, new gear by industry legends, and even video synthesis systems, the convention delivers the goods.
This year’s Knobcon (number eight) featured an assortment of gear. And with so many sounds, knobs, faders, and LCD screens, it was information overload, but in the best possible way. Below, we’ve highlighted some of the best pieces of kit that we saw on our recent trip to Chicago. And for those readers who’ve never been to the gathering, perhaps next year you might consider it.
Buchla 208C and 100 Series
Bucha’s new 100 Series Music Easel was the elephant in the conference room. Don Buchla, an alumnus of the illustrious San Francisco Tape Center, and the electronic instrument world’s psychedelic godfather, looms large in the annals of synthesizer history. And when in the presence of one of his Music Easels, one can understand why. Some of the earliest electronic music was made on his synths, the West Coast additive synthesis counterpoint to Moog’s East Coast substractive synthesis mentality.
Buchla’s 208C is a standalone additive synthesizer that builds on Buchla Easel Synthesizer, minus the distinctive touch-sensitive keyboard. Released in time for Knobcon, the 208C features five new patch inputs for Audio & CV voltage, which means more patching capabilities for external sounds and other modules and synths. The 208C also features onboard support for an optional present management system (the vintage modules couldn’t store patches), and optional MIDI support.
Also seen at Knobcon was Buchla’s resurrected San Francisco Tape Music Center’s 100 Series modular synth. This groundbreaking synth is now back in its original format. To pull it off, Buchla worked with SFTMC co-founder Morton Subotnik. No word yet on pricing or expected date of delivery.
Modal Electronics Argon8 & ASM Hydrasynth
Not one but two new wavetable synthesizers made an appearance at Knobcon. Modal Electronics and ASM (Ashun Sound Machines) take different approaches with the Argon8 and Hydrasynth, respectively. The cool thing, however, is that both are being priced with affordability in mind (the keyboard Argon8 is £579, while the keyboard Hydrasynth is £1041.41).
The Argon8 has 8 voices spread across its 37 full-weighted keys. Design-wise, it almost feels inspired by the Korg Minilogue, with its rotary knobs and small but useful display, though the final product’s look my change. Modal Electronics placed 120 wavetables into 24 banks of 5 morphable waveform sets, which can mimic analogue but also create futuristic digital sounds. It also comes with a 32 hi-res wavetable oscillators (4 per voice), and a ton of modulation capabilities, including a joystick for that purpose. For the price, the Argon8 will certainly be a highly attractive option for wavetable enthusiasts, both for studio sound design and live performance.
The Hydrasynth, unlike the Argon 8, has some size and mass to it. And this beautiful looking and sounding wavetable synthesizer has some historical DNA in its synthesis design. ASM is backed by Hong-Kong based Medeli Electronics Co, which is home to Glen Darcey, formerly of Arturia, who also led Akai’s design of the MPC5000, APC40 (with Ableton), and the MPK line of keyboards.
In a recent interview, Darcey himself described ASM’s approach to wavetable synthesis in the Hydrasynth. “It is a wave morphing synthesizer at the heart of the oscillators,” said Darcey. “You can put eight single-cycle waves of your choice, from a list of 219, and then morph between them. But then the Mutators allow you do things like FM synthesis, three different flavors of pulse width modulation and wave bending, OSC sync, harmonic sweeps, Wavestacking…all this before going into two filters.”
“So it is a wave morphing synthesizer,” he explains, “but you can do legit FM synthesis on it, and it can do VA analog types of things and then mix and combine all of that. It is really a very deep hybrid of all those things.”
The Hydrasynth also features polyphonic aftertouch, which isn’t exactly common, and a four-octave ribbon controller. The “Wasestacking” function means that those 219 wavetables can be stacked on top of each other, if one isn’t using them in sequence. As Darcey says, the Hydrasynth is deep and powerful.
Synthesis Technology E520 Hyperion
A few years ago, Synthesis Technology successfully crowd-funded the Cloud Terrarium, a wavetable module, on Kickstarter. At this year’s Knobcon, the company showcased a prototype of their Hyperion E520 stereo audio processor, for which founder Paul Schreiber is also raising funds on Kickstarter.
Just as how the Cloud Terrarium combined the E340 Cloud Generator and the E350 Morphing Terrarium modules, the Hyperion combines E560 Deflector Shield and the E580 MIDI Sampling Delay, along with some added features. But whereas Cloud Terrarium was Mono In-Out, Hyperion is Mono/Stereo In and Stereo Out. Hyperion has four voltage-controlled parameters and features a fast 480MHz DSP with 64Mb of Sd RAM, which allows the module to run code much faster than the Cloud Terrarium.
So what does Hyperion do in its current breadboard prototype incarnation? Well, it can take stereo samples, and allows users to tweak them with its DSP. As of right now, Hyperion can handle samples up to 22 minutes in length, which would make it a sample-based musicians dream. As can be seen in the video above, Schreiber showcases some very cool audio sample processing on the Hyperion prototype.
Erogenous Tones Structure
One of the more mesmerizing pieces of kit at Knobcon wasn’t even a music device. It was a video synthesizer called Structure. The brainchild of Rick Burnett, founder of Erogenous Tones Structure is a “video generator module”. Its modular design means it fits neatly in the Eurorack modular category. And because it can rhythmically sync with a rig’s musical output, Structure gives live electronic musicians can easy but deep and powerful real-time visuals solution. Indeed, the company created with a variety of users in mind, from musicians to VJs and visual artists.
Design-wise, it will be familiar to modular synth users, with its patching capabilities for Audio/CV In, Gate In/Out, and Video In (LZX 1V RGB standard, CVBS) Out (CVBS). This means a variety of visuals can be sent into Structure, which are then able to be tweaked via dedicated
But what about the visual results? Structure excels at trippy, cyberdelic motion graphics, giving users a wealth of options to augment their live performances. What’s great about Structure, as Burnett told Attack, is that it can also serve as an entry point into the world of 3D graphics, giving users a tactile device to learn the technology instead of just staring at a screen.