Review: Expert Sleepers ES-8 Interface
We’ve talked a lot about Expert Sleepers’ products in recent months. And there’s a good reason – their products seem custom-made for the Max + Modular enthusiast. Gregory has discussed the ES-3 and ES-6 CV interfaces, and Tom has talked a bit about the Disting (and its use for some conversion functions). But recently Os (Andrew Ostler – Expert Sleepers’ mastermind/designer/developer) released the ES-8, which is my perfect interface module.
What exactly do these Expert Sleeper modules do? Well, they take the audio signals generated by your computer (in our case, from your Max patch…) and converts it into voltage values that allow interaction with your modular system. This may seem easy, but there are several details that can snag you with other audio interfaces: you might see that DC voltages are blocked by the interface (meaning that CV control options are limited), or that the levels are simply too low to be useful for modular control. Thus, having a purpose-built interface can solve many problems – and that’s what Expert Sleepers has built its business upon.
This module combines the input and output functions of the ES-3 and ES-8 while also providing USB interface functionality – making it a plug-and-play, 1-cable interface between your modular and Max! So what’s in there, and how well is it working?
What’s in the box
What do you get with the ES-8? It’s simple: it is a 4-in, 8-out audio interface with a USB connection to your computer, and lightpipe connections for expansion. Whoopie, right? Well, there are a few details that make it an excellent addition to my modular/studio combo:
- It is properly scaled for Eurorack operation, so everything works in a modular system without much scaling.
- It is DC-coupled for both input and output, so it is a great option for both audio and CV routing between your computer and your modular (and especially Max!).
- It’s an 8HP Eurorack thing, so it is always there, always part of your modular, and always ready to be brought into your patch!
- It’s a tight, smart package that is perfect for the Mac-based Max user (sadly, not yet ready for Windows, because there are no drivers yet available…).
Why is this different?
In fact, having your audio-for-modular interface embedded into the Eurorack system has a few nice benefits, and most of them are related to motivation. I don’t know about you, but whenever I have to start patching a lot of external devices into my modular system, it seems less likely to be a patch that I’ll be willing to keep patched for a long period of time. By having the interface embedded into the modular itself, there is clarity about it being part of the modular ‘system’, and therefore part of the patching environment.
Another key aspect is that the output of Max is tightly tied to the output of the interface, making output scaling much easier to deal with. If you’ve tried using an audio interface as a CV control, you know the frustration of running scaling functions to set the pitch curves, then dealing with the inevitable mismatches of output to scaled value. In the case of the ES-8, there is no separation between the audio value and the CV output, so it is simple to set up well-calibrated pitches. In my case, a simple scale object is all that was needed to get a 10-octave range from computer to modular, and I never once had to calibrate anything.
Of course, depending on the stability of your synth’s power supply and the calibration of your ES-8, your mileage may vary. But I found this the easiest way possible for integrating Max pitched output into my modular rig short of a MIDI-to-CV converter, but the ES-8 provides so much more in terms of flexibility!
Finally, the ES-8 provides some of the most useful indicators possible; the jacks of the module light up in to show the voltage found at that jack!
This means that you can always see what’s happening for each of the inputs and outputs (and you can even see the results if a cable is patched into it…), giving you a lot of feedback on the modular-to-computer linkup without having to have a bunch of metering modules. This is super-helpful when debugging patches, and it just awesome in use.
Interfacing with Max (and MFL)
Interfacing with Max couldn’t be easier. It’s just an audio interface, so you just use a dac~ and adc~ to talk to the interface, make sure the ES-8 is plugged into your computer and selected as the Max audio interface, and start shooting values back and forth. The range of -0.5 through 0.5 within Max will output values from -5 VDC to +5 VDC, which is the typical range I wanted to work with. If you push Max’s whole +/- 1.0 range, you get an output range of +/- 10 VDC, which can be useful for control voltages and triggers (if not pitch).
If Wishes were Kisses…
Expert Sleepers has developed a smart product here, and it checks off most of the boxes that my friends and I are looking for. By being creative with the metering/feedback (using the lit jacks), keeping the width to 8HP and building in flexibility (via ADAT connectors and headers for a ES-5 expansion), users are presented with a ton of capability in a reasonable amount of rack space.
About the only thing that I need are some Windows drivers. I really like using my Lenovo Yoga for live gigs – it works well lid-down, and makes me feel hardware-only even when I’m engaged with Max. But no Windows driver means no Yoga. Boohoo!
Nevertheless, I’m excited about adding the ES-8 as a core tool in my modular. It means that a certain class of modules (loopers/standard effect/ultra-reverbs) don’t need to live in my case – I can use the best-of-class tools I already use with my creative laptop/software rig, and I don’t have to waste case space on duplicates of the things that Max does well (or even better). I also have the whole world of Ableton/Max for Live/standalone hardware that can get integrated into the setup, and the options are expanding. I’m not sure I could recommend any interfacing hardware more highly.