We have the techno-logy: building a Eurorack system for live techno
A question we are often asked is, “how do I go about building a techno-oriented Eurorack system?” Fear not, young padawan! In this post we’ll go over some important concepts for improvising, make sure we have all the staples of techno in our rack, and build a few example systems. By the end, you’ll hopefully be well on your way to making some four-on-the-floor Eurorack badassery. To start, let’s go over some possibly unintuitive concepts to keep in mind when planning out a system.
Keep it simple, dude
Techno, especially live, can be very minimalistic. Especially since we’re planning on doing at least some improvising, keeping our system minimal is an important goal. Obviously, we always need to have a kick, probably some hats or cymbals, and some kind of bassline. However, other than that, we don’t need a lot of layers, and the fewer instruments we have, the less we need to think about when we’re jamming. Less is more, and when you’re rocking a dance floor people mostly just want a consistent, evolving groove.
Keep the music going for the love of everything good in this world
Nobody wants dead air. Whether you’re in front of a crowd of ten or ten thousand, the sound should never stop. While improvising is great, we want a system that’s foolproof: even if we aren’t doing anything, sound should keep going. We’re more looking to influence what’s already happening more than create everything from scratch. Because of this, most of our system is going to be oriented towards sequencing and manipulation more than actual sound creation. It may seem a little bit weird, but it makes it way more fun to jam this way.
So what do we actually need?
We’ll go over a few example systems in this post, but broadly, we’re going to need three categories of modules.
Actual sound stuff
I mean, what’s techno without synths? This is eurorack, after all. First and foremost, we need percussion. Ahead of all of that we need a strong kick element. Then we’ll probably want other percussive elements, like hi-hats, cymbals, claps, or snares. Remember, keep it simple! It’s easy to go overboard, especially when first planning a system out, so keep it to a few elements here.
We also need some kind of bassline and melody. Voice modules are your friend here, so we’ll mostly be using this sort of thing in our example systems, as they’re easy to interact with, compact, and again, more foolproof.
Sequencing is, again, the most important element of our system here. We’ll spend a lot of time talking about different ways of sequencing CV and triggers for all of our different elements, manipulating them, and keeping them evolving over our whole set. Small changes make a big difference in long form music like techno.
Obviously, we need all of our sounds to come together in the end and go out to the sound system. In any system this can be as simple as a single mixer, or, if you’re like me, more complex and include utilities like compressors, EQ’s, and DSP effects. There’s a lot of ways to do mixing, but it’s important to think about how it fits into a performance as well here. Everything has to come together nicely! (More on mixing coming soon!)
Hey, quit stalling!
Let’s get to the fun part: actually building a system! We have a basic idea of what we want, so to start out, here’s what I’ve come out with. 6u x 104hp is a great size as it’s relatively small, portable, and gives us enough space to do a lot of cool stuff, so I’m going to plan the systems in the post out using this size.
You can view the system for yourself here. What the gosh darn heck is goin’ on here?? Let’s discuss.
Sliiiide to the left
On the top left of the system, we have our Horologic Solum. This is going to clock all the sequencers in our system, and can do some basic sequencing by itself. Maybe you want a 16th note snare build? HS has you covered. Next to that, we have an Extra Mullet, which can split our clock out to our other modules (you could also use splitter cables or hubs to do this if you want to save rack space, but having a buffered mult like this is handy for splitting CV as well). To the right, we have Numeric Repetitor and Zularic Repetitor. Each of these have four outputs, which feed very nicely into Confundo Funkitus below, where they can be combined, faded between, muted, and then routed to our percussion and bassline modules. These three modules fit into my “foolproof” concept: you don’t have to do anything to keep a rhythm going, and all you need to do to start them is feed in a clock. Instant beats! However, you can easily manipulate them with their different parameters, take them in and out with the mutes on CF, and keep things interesting on the fly over your whole set.
To the left we also have a Bin Seq. BS is super accessible and immediate, and is great for sequencing synths with its gates or triggers. It also complements the rhythms of ZR and NR, allowing us to program in a quick sequence with exactly what we want.
To the right of these, we move on to CV. First, we have two Mimetic Digitalis. These will cover our melodic duties, and most of our modulation. Again, all you need to do to create a melody or some new modulation is hold down Shred and you’re off to the metaphorical races. You can also prepare melodies and modulation patterns ahead of time and save them to be loaded at different times in the set. To the right of this, we have Mimetic Sequent and its expander Mimetic Multium, which can take three channels of MD and further manipulate and randomize it, to keep things a little bit different. The expander also offers randomized trigger outputs for further rhythmic fun!
Back to the bottom row, we have Muta Jovis, which can be used to mute CV (an underated performance option), and Lapsus Os, which can be used to fade and invert CV on the fly, and then split it out to multiple destinations. Our last CV module is the Sinc Defero, a simple buffered attenuator/multiple. Always handy to have!
We’ve gone over the sequencing and manipulation modules in this system, but that doesn’t do much good without stuff to sequence. Time for synths! We have five voices in this system. I’d avoid having any more than this; in fact, four is more than enough for a lot of cases. First, we have two Basimilus Iteritas Alter. BIA is my favorite kick drum in Eurorack, so one of these will be dedicated to kicks. Since it has so many parameters, it can easily be modified and modulated to create accents, tonal changes, and more. The second one can act as a number of things: hats, snares, or another synth voice.
Next is the Manis Iteritas, which can also serve many functions, including claps or metallic sounds, or as a bass or lead. I would probably use the two BIA as kick and hats, and the MI as a clap-type sound with some modulation.
Next is the Loquelic Iteritas Percido, my personal favorite voice. While it excels at synths, I really like it for kicks as well. Just route the envelope to the pitch of one (or both) of the oscillators, get some modulation going, and it’s guaranteed to shake the foundation. I’d probably use it for basslines though, in this case. LIP is great because it’s very easy to tweak and get a wide variety of sounds out of, but it can easily be kept in tune if you don’t touch the pitch encoders.
Lastly, I included a sample player, the TipTop Audio ONE. There are a lot of techno sounds that work really well that are easiest to use as samples, so load up an SD card full of your favorites and you’re off. I’d use this for 909-style snare builds, cymbals, one shot synths… you name it.
Tune your kicks plz
Lastly, we need to mix it all together and make it sound awesome. I’ve included a Soleo Vero, two WMD MSCL, two Happy Nerding Tritone, an Erica Synths Drum Mixer, and a WMD Pro Output. I also have a Make Noise Erbe Verb for some DSP.
First off, SV is really handy as it lets you easily tune three voices visually. This means you can make sure your synth voices are in tune with your kick (which they should be! Kick pitch is extremely important, as it’s the foundation of techno and everything needs to gel with it) and make sure everything is sounding like it should before you send it out to the dance floor.
Second, I have the Erbe Verb. Reverb is a very handy tool for adding space, creating builds and layers, and adding tension. 20 hp is a lot of space to dedicate to reverb, but to me it’s worth it, as it’s basically another element to play with and tweak.
Next, we have two MSCLs. I would use one of these to duck one or two synth voices to the kick via the sidechain input (it’s stereo and in this case we can process two voices separately before they go out to the mixer) which helps keep things dynamic and bring out the kick. I’d use the second one after my mixer to compress and limit things just a bit and bring out some punch (check out our Mixing for Modular post for more on that!).
Then we have two TriTones. I’d probably put one of these on a synth or two that I felt needed some frequency changing (maybe too much low end? Too much high end?). The nice thing about the TriTone is that the individual bands can be used separately, so I could, say, take a notch out of a snare, cut some lows on a kick, and boost some highs on a synth with just one module. I can use the second TriTone before my final MSCL as a master bus compressor to add some character and smooth out any stray frequencies.
Last up is the Erica Synths Drum Mixer. It’s a nice seven-channel mixer with a very aggressive built-in compressor. I like how the knobs feel and it’s great for doing slow builds and fades, and the compressor adds a touch of glue which is useful too. The more tools the better!
So we have a basic layout for a system. This system is very much designed for improvisation and randomisation, so it’s hard to really go wrong in a set with this one, which is great. There’s also a huge range of sounds that can be had from this system, so even if you don’t change any modules you could have completely different performance one night to the next. But what if we want something oriented more towards prepared melodies and patterns and less improv?
Switch it up
System #2 enters the playing field! You can view it here.
I’ve kept the mixing section the same on this one. Obviously there are virtually endless ways to build a mixing setup but this one works nicely for me.
Basically everything else is different though!
Find your voice(s)
I still have two BIAs, because let’s face it, BIA is great for techno. I’ve replaced the other voices with an Ataraxic Iteritas and Cursus Iteritas. I have an Intellijel uVCA, a dual simple dual VCA to control the dynamics of these two oscillators, and it’s being modulated by two channels of a Pons Asinorum. The other two PA channels could further modulate these two oscillators either envelopes or LFOs.
Sequencing: it’s kind of a big deal
Our last system relied primarily on various trigger sequencers with built-in rhythms to drive our various voices. This system, however, does not. At the top left, we have an HS as our master clock again, followed by an Integra Solum. IS can do a lot of things, so we could use it to divide our clock in various ways to run our other sequencers at different rhythms, or sequence voices itself. Following this, I have four Bin Seq. Again, this is a very immediate trigger sequencer, and we can run them at different tempos with the IS, so this offers a lot of sequencing in a relatively small area. Last, we have an Integra Funkitus, which can combine our four BS in different ways. The four IF channels can be sent out to Muta Jovis for easy muting/unmuting.
For CV, I again have a Mimetic Digitalis, with the addition of two Clep Diaz. CD is a great clocked modulation source, again letting us do interesting timed modulation with the help of HS and IS. CV from MD and the CDs can be combined using Roti Pola, and all of these can be further manipulated and multed to the rest of the system by Lapsus Os. Finally, we have the Transistor Sounds Labs Stepper Acid. While only offering one channel of CV out, it’s a great 303-style sequencer. Since we already have triggering covered, we can create long pitch sequences, mult them out to two oscillators being triggered differently, and have interacting melodies and rhythms from our melodic voices. With features like Burn on IF and ease of programming of the BS, as well as various offset and CV options on IS, it’s easy to create fills and variations, as well as new sequences. Pitch sequences can be programmed in banks on the Stepper Acid as well for a more prepared and pre-programmed set, if that’s what you’re into.
Go make some techno
Obviously, there are endless ways to go about this, and this was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the possibilities for voicing, sequencing, mixing, and jamming. Hopefully, the concepts that we’ve talked about and the systems we built give you some ideas and you’re well on your way to building your own techno system!
For more info on techno, check out the post Joey Blush of Blush Response did for us a while back, too!