This blog is going to be a bit different, mainly because Robert has been super busy with orders and hasn’t had much time to work on new modules. Most people who are anxiously waiting for a package from Germany may appreciate this!
However we are going to introduce a new independent AE module creator and his two new modules.
Zeno is a relative newcomer to the AE Modular community, but boy did he make an entrance! Already his first few videos were thumping and were immediately followed by a series of live streams of techno done with his new AE Modular system. From the start he was engaged in the DIY channel of the Discord server and board on the forum and it wasn’t long before he introduced his first module idea - Kurt’s Dead Band Filter. You can see his first announcement here:
He has taken a big step and really turned this prototype into a product which is now for sale as a DIY kit. That’s why we would like to know more about Zeno, how he got into making electronic music and where he gets his ideas for building modules.
First things first, what are those new modules?
Kurt's Dead Band is an audio/CV manipulation tool for AE Modular, homemade with tons of love by Keurslager Kurt. In the kit you will find everything you need to make your own 1U Dead Band module, you only need a soldering iron and some solder. The build is very beginner friendly, with only through-hole components.
Kurt’s Quad Boost is an amplifier module for the AE Modular format. It is tailored specifically for AE Modular, but it will work for every signal from 0-5V, and it runs on 5V. It consists of four transistor amplifier circuits, inspired by the old-school ‘LPB-1’ guitar pedal. Each amplifier circuit has its own dedicated ‘Boost’ knob that controls the input volume. The amplification has a distinct ‘transistor sound’. Due to the non-linear nature of this simple component, it is by no means a clean boost at all. Depending on the input volume, you will get everything in between crispy high end accents and deep low-end fatness.
You can see the Quad Boost in action here:
Where can people buy your modules and how much do they cost?
I will start off by offering my modules as a complete kit. So you get the PCB, front panel and all components, but you need to solder and mount it together yourself. It is honestly really easy, and could be a great beginner build for everyone who wants to try out soldering! You can get a soldering iron for as low as €10 these days and that will do for a small build like this.
I would like to offer full modules in the future, but the reality for the moment is that I have no decent workbench to do long soldering sessions, nor do I have the spare time for it besides my day job. It also makes shipping considerably harder, as I can send the kit just as a ‘flat’ envelope package, but a full module would have very different shipping needs. So we’ll see what the future brings, I’ll be on the lookout for ways to make the full module possible, and of course the success of the kit will also determine the future.
A website is in the works, but for now you can buy my Dead Band kit for €37.95 (or $45 USD, without shipping costs) via Tindie on this page:
The Quad Boost is also available now (quicker than expected)! It’s a slightly more dense build, there are more components on a smaller space, but nothing is really fragile and all components are through-hole. This full kit costs €33.86 (or $40 USD, no shipping included).
Please tell us a bit about your musical journey. How did you start making electronic music and who are your influences?
My first exposure to electronic music must have been the LP’s of Kraftwerk from my dad. However, this felt like ‘old’ music already when I was a teenager. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed listening to these records, but the first time electronic music blew me away must have been Mount Kimbie’s debut album ‘Crooks & Lovers’. I think I was about 16 years old and it sounded like nothing else at that moment, and yet, it felt very catchy and accessible. Listening back to it now, I can hear tons of interesting soundscaping, loads of hiss, bitcrushed drums, etc, but back then it was the melodies and funky rhythms that I heard. I think making and experimenting with music yourself makes you hear other music very different.
Then came tons of albums that sucked me into electronic music. There was James Blake’s first EPs and album, I remember Boards Of Canada releasing a new album which made me discover their fantastic debut. I dove into Aphex Twin and Autechre, and also enjoyed more recent stuff from people like Flying Lotus or Fourtet. One of my favorite albums was also Moderat’s ‘II’, which gave some nice introductions to techno and club music. And probably my all time favorite electronic artist is Oneohtrix Point Never, he really blurs all lines between experimental, cheesy pop and noise with his incredible catalogue of the last decade.
But the biggest influence that made me want to make techno music was definitely Recondite. He really makes music that makes me dance and touches my soul, but in a very German Techno way. It’s very minimal, almost cold music, and yet it’s crafted so well that it makes me feel something. So my first experience going to a Techno club was seeing Recondite live in a warehouse in my hometown of Ghent, and that is definitely what got me into the clubbing and techno scene.
Seeing these people perform, often with live rigs consisting of tons of Elektron gear, desktop synths and often a modular rig, made me dream about my own system. Like a lot of people here, seeing the steep prices of Eurorack gear made me reconsider my dreams. When Covid hit, I was pretty much locked at home without work (I give practical courses about electrical motors at Uni). I was lucky enough to keep my paycheck, so I had more money than usual (as I couldn’t go out), and way more time. So this is the point where I really got into hardware synths, starting with a TD-3 and an Elektron Model:Samples. After some months I also started recording live videos of my jams, which got watched by random people online (much to my suprise!!). I’ve played in quite some bands, and it always seemed so hard to even reach 100 different listeners that are not our own friends & family. So this was really a new experience for me that gave me tons of energy to explore hardware synths further.
This is also when I started to use the ‘Keurslager Kurt’ alias. I was in search of a good artist name, and it's a bit of a recurring trend with European Techno artists to make music under their own name (Charlotte Dewitte, Adam Beyer, Amelie Lens, Stephan Bodzin, Robert Langer,..). But in my opinion ‘Zeno Van Moerkerke’ was not really a great stage name. So I ended up using ‘Keurslager Kurt’, which is actually the name of the local butcher in the small rural village where I grew up (Keurslager meaning ‘quality butcher’ in Dutch). It sounds a bit brutal, which is perfect for making techno music, but it’s also a bit stupid, to indicate that I don’t take myself too serious. So when you see recurring hints to meat, butchers, etc, in my music and artwork, now you know why! Oh, and to be clear, I’m not with the meat lobby, it’s not meant to be serious at all ;-)
So after diving into hardware synthesizers,I got to know AE Modular through a video of BoBeats in the second half of 2020. Seeing those prices and hearing the fantastic music of people on here (I remember the cactus video of Slowscape in particular, but of course also the videos of Tuesday Night Machines, The 5th Volt & Technobear) made me take the dive into modular!
You have used other electronic instruments in the past and we can see a Digitakt in one of your videos. Why did you choose to add the AE Modular to your arsenal and how does it fit into your music?
Modular seemed very inspiring to me as it can do things that really no other hardware instrument can do. I’m very interested in synthesis and the crossing of science and music, and AE Modular seemed perfect for that. Besides all that, AE Modular is also compact, which is important as I have very little space to work with.
I think Digitakt and AE Modular make a fantastic pairing. I often use Digitakt as the central piece of my setup (much like a lot of AE users use a Deluge), it sends clock & MIDI signals while it also provides a fantastic sequencer with tons of musical options. However, AE Modular offers an endless amount of possibilities that the Digitakt does not have, as it is a sample based machine. Modular also gives a great way to introduce random factors, small changes and such that make the music come to life!
However, even with high expectations, I was still very impressed, surprised even, by how extremely good AE Modular sounds. I did not find a lot of people dipping in techno and more ‘harsh’ sounds on youtube, so it was a bit of a guess whether it would be something that fits AE Modular. But the brute force and power that you can create with the system really blew me away. I have spent so much time with the machine the last half year, I even sold quite some of my older gear because I don’t use it anymore since I have my AE, haha.
What do you like about the system and where would you like to see improvements?
Like most of us, I was sucked in by the affordable prices, but what impressed me most was the fantastic sound quality. I also love the patch cables, it keeps the system so portable and makes it really easy to interface with experiments on a breadboard. I think the analog modules side of AE Modular really bring tons of great options already, and I think the most ‘groundbreaking’ new options might be in the digital side of things. Which is ironic, because I only make analog stuff, haha!
So what I miss most is some type of complex, digital sequencer that would really make the system a standalone powerhouse for more percussive stuff too. However, I still have made quite some live techno on AE Modular alone, and the TOPOGRAF has been a godsend for that. What would also solve that ‘problem’ for me, would be the possibilities to have multiple MIDI channels to CV in. My Digitakt can send and sequence up to 8 MIDI tracks, so multiple MIDI in channels on the AE would make some seriously complex songs possible!
But I feel like this community is growing fast, and so many people are loving the system, that it is only a matter of time for more and more third parties to arrive! Together with Robert himself churning out so many modules, I feel like the future is gonna be great for AE (and the present is already so great!!).
How did you get started with electronics and how did you get the idea for the new modules?
I only got into electronics about one and a half years ago, when I started at my new job at the University. The previous lab teacher who retired, was an electronics geek building his own amplifiers and stuff. In the past, when people at the university were going to throw old stuff away, he always kept it in different cases ‘hidden’ in the lab. So when I was going through all the stuff, I found tons and tons of old PCB’s with loads of different stuff. I was triggered to go online and search what all these different chips did. I found some chips that came out of an old function generator, and found out that synth diy legend Thomas Henry used these exact chips to build a synth in the past. It led me into a rabbit hole of diy builders and youtubers like Look Mum No Computer, Simon The Magpie, and many more.
I started building guitar pedals, as I did not have a lot of synth knowledge back then, I mainly played guitar. However, testing guitar pedals is really a drag. You have to mess with a huge contraption of jack sockets going to your breadboard, connecting a ton of grounds with alligator clips and at the same time you have to hold and play your guitar! No fun, and very frustrating at times. So when I got my AE Modular, it was when I really took a deep plunge in audio electronics, as it is so easy to connect a breadboard and experiment! I must add that I’m also quite an electronics nerd by now, I read ‘The Art of Electronics’ before I go to sleep in bed these days, haha.
So the idea for new modules did not come out of a direct need, but rather out of learning new circuits and trying them out to see if I can make something musical with it. My first module, Kurt’s Dead Band, was based on a super interesting video I found by Prof. Aaron Lantermann. It seemed like a fun, super basic circuit that I could easily try out on the breadboard, and it worked! So I took that idea to the AE Modular forum, and both Robert and @namke (from Wonkystuff) provided me very useful input on converting this basic building block to a useful module. So I managed to add CV, together with the option for both audio & DC in, and I even discovered an ‘easter egg’ in the circuit by accident that made it possible to both create a horizontal and vertical dead band.
The Quad Boost also came into existence while I was learning more about transistors. I still have a hard time completely grasping transistors, as they feel like very complex and non-ideal building blocks with a lot of unexpected properties. So while I was learning about circuits to use a transistor as a simple amplification device, I wanted to try and design one to test my new knowledge. So after a lot of calculations and mistakes on paper, I figured out a working, simple circuit on 5V. It’s actually so simple that I managed to fit four identical circuits on one PCB with all through-hole (so easy-diy) components. I really love the sound of it, it's not a clean amplification by any means, but I think other people will enjoy the transistor boost sound too!
There is actually a fun twist with the Quad Boost: you can change just one specific resistor value in the circuit which really alters the sound in a cool way, giving it some dirtier clipping/overdrive sound. For example, for my own version I have two of the four transistor boost circuits with the ‘standard’ value, and the two others with the ‘dirty’ version. For the module I will include some extra resistors, so people at home can make their own personal version of the circuit! I will also include four different transistors for the circuit, but these only alter the sound in some very subtle (or imaginary?) way, but it's fun to introduce some randomness.
Do you have more ideas? What do you think you will produce next?
I have been messing with a recording/playback chip, ISD1820. It's a low cost and very glitchy chip, which is a lot of fun, but also very unstable. If I figure out a way to make it work reliably, I think it could be a fun circuit to convert to a module. One thing that I would also love to make is a completely analog drum kit module that is suitable for more techno-oriented setups: kick, snare and hihat. A clap would also be nice, but seems rather hard to do. So this one needs a ton more research and is something for the longer future. Probably I will do some random other circuits in between, depending on what crosses my path!
Of course I’m always interested in what other people would like, and I will also make all my schematics public on the forum, as that is how I learned about electronics in the first place! So I would like to spread the knowledge and help other interested people or builders. Anyone who has questions, tips, or thoughts, I’m very happy to chat and talk about this kind of stuff.
More Info, Social Media, etc
Don't forget to visit his Tindie Shop and buy those two modules!
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Robert Langer, founder of tangible waves. Here, I will share some thoughts, background infos and news about AE modular and tangible waves.