And so I did - the news that this year's guest of honor was John Chowning sealed the deal. How could I pass up the chance to greet and learn from someone who's had such an influence on my musical life? If my experience from last year was anything to go by, I'd also have the chance to actually speak with Dr. Chowning - the scale and basic lack of pretension about the gathering really enables that kind of contact. I even got out my 1988 copy of John Chowning's work on Wergo (one of the very first computer music compact discs I ever acquired) and threw it in my bag, hoping to play fanboy and to acquire a signed "Holy Relic...."
So I bought myself a very reasonable ticket that'd get me into the whole weekend, gassed up the car, and headed to Schaumburg, IL where - behind the giant shopping center, several days of synth wonderfulness awaited. Here's a selection of what I saw (and heard).
Alone and Together
Visits to meetups like this are often full of wonderful and singular surprises (more on this in just a minute), but during my visit to KnobCon I also tried to make my way through the exhibitors and to get a sense of not only what was on display, but to think about and to present what I think were some patterns to be found amid the aggregate novelty. I think that three emergent patterns/groupings appeared during my circuits around the floor this year:
- New devices for the post-laptop (post-Eurorack?) world
- The semipermeable boundary between software and the hardware
- The return of the wavetable synth
Some Singular Encounters
Patterns and emergent fashions are always interesting, but it's possible that you can be so busy looking for flocks that you miss the occasional bit of bright plumage. Before we get to the list above things, I'd like to talk about some singular encounters.
One of the great rewards about pacing the exhibitor area is the chance to come upon something that’s honestly off the map in terms of your own expectations – something you either didn’t expect to find or didn’t know even existed. Those moments of discovery can be bits of humble joy (at last year’s KnobCon, it was my encounter with Real Fake Knobs) or larger projects, such as last year's amazing Handsome Audio Zulu passive analog tape simulator.
A Chip Off The Old Bloc
This year's hands-down "I didn't see that one coming" would have to be nOmni - Adrian Freed's line of ICs for modular, nano and DIY synthesizer building - a set of CMOS devices that come in a 20-pin TSSOP package and a 2x3mm STQFN package, also. Up until now, the options for DIY and synth designers have basically been limited to analog chip clones from back in the day or embedded microcontrollers. nOMni's line of devices provide an interesting new alternative to that situation (you can find a listing of the devices to be made available this year and next year here).
How do you demonstrate something like this at a place like KnobCon? Easy - you breadboard up a bunch of really nice sounding examples and man your booth with the devices' creator - catnip for the synth designer par excellence. This is a pretty exciting development!
Seeing Is Believing
On the "seeing is believing" front, I had a great introduction to the world of Eurorack video processing last year, courtesy of a workshop/talk by the folks from LZX industries. Their appearance this year included a device that will probably make pretty intuitive sense to Max users: The Memory Palace. It's a digital video transformation and frame buffer memory device whose possibilities for video transformation are amazing.
Person To Person
One of the most interesting conversations wasn't about things at all - it was the chance to meet and talk with Aaron Guice, whose AFRORACK initiative is focused on diverse community access by means of workshops, seminars, and ambitious programming centered around using modular synths.
It's my kind of STEM education. I particularly loved the idea that he's working with 0-Coast and Moog modulars to help enable the next generation of modular analog flow.
An Unexpected Encounter
My final "single sighting" falls into the category of those exhibitors I ritually visit out of respect more than expectations of the novel. Every exhibition I go to must always include a visit to the Buchla booth, where I stare in envy at the enormous and tricked-out 200e system being programmed by some lucky Buchla booth person that costs more than my car. After that, I spend a few minutes lovingly caressing one of the Music Easels on display, and look forward to the day when.... Go on - admit it: you do it, too.
But that didn't happen this time. Instead, I met two new Buchla friends. The first surprise was a pre-release version of their new Red Panel series of modules based on Don's designs from the San Francisco Tape Music Center days faithful to the originals, minus the legendary soluble pharmaceutical front panels.
The other surprise was the appearance of Buchla's new 208C Command Module, which takes the contents of the Music Easel out of the briefcase, adds some nifty new inlet and outlet options, and includes a few cool new sound options.
My Buchla booth visit was a great reminder that you should always revisit your regulars and be on the lookout for new stuff from your old friends, too.
Look, Ma! No Laptops (No Euroracks, Either?)
The first "common theme" for this year's KnobCon probably won't be a particular surprise (although the sheer number of options may be): the fruit of continued interest and product development on synths that let you step away from the laptop (or your Eurorack system, even) and enjoy a world slightly larger than the Stompbox.
In a way, we’ve gone full circle, from dozens of connected stompboxes to laptops that encapsulated all that audio processing, and then back to a world where we’ve migrated again to a rich and flourishing ecosystem of smaller things to use to make noise.
Let’s also not forget that those smaller things all have knobs to twiddle instead of places to point and click. It's their physicality that makes them immediate and attractive, but also makes them a little touch to shop around for. One particularly useful feature about events such as KnobCon is that you've got the chance to see and interact with a variety of possible futures in those situations where products cluster - you have the chance to spend time with the devices and the people who know them well. As a result, you begin to get a sense about whose specific set of solutions can make the most physical or emotional sense to you.
KnobCon was a veritable hothouse of those smaller futures, no shortage of options on display beyond those examples of keyboard products now available in keyless/rackmount/desktop forms, and the space and time to try them out.
The offerings included recent offerings from more major players
The $99 DIY Kit Korg NTS-1 - a descendent of the Micrologue
It was fun to catch up with a few new KnobCon exhibitors I hadn’t seen in a while. And on the “Small is Beautiful” front, the folks at Erica Synths had something cool: their Picosystem Mk III – a fantastic little semimodular starter system with a card system that stores all of your routings. At 450 Euros (400 as a Eurorack module), it’s a compelling little box.
IK Multimedia has moved far afield from their early software days, and collaborated with the Italian Soundtools people and Andromeda designer Erik Nordlander to bring us the UNO pair - a drum machine and a monosynth with a small footprint, a big sound, and an attractive price tag
There were other players that caught my fancy, too - I was particularly charmed by Zeppelin Design Labs' Macchiato synth and their Altura Mark II Theremin MIDI controller/arpeggiator (which features one of those "Why didn't someone do this a lot earlier?" features: an adjustable range for the theremin's response.
Off The Beatin' Path
Of course, there are more possible tools out there that aren't drum machines or synths, too. The folks at Conductive Labs were showing two Teensy-based devices that began their lives as Kickstarter projects that appeared in the flesh to enable interesting things:
The first of Conductive Labs' dynamic duo is the NDLR (it's pronounced noodler): A stunning little box you use in conjunction with you other little gear as a polyphonic arpeggiator. This little item really packed quite a "Wow" factor for me - it fills a niche that really didn't exist in small-gear land until it came along. Rather than listening to me rant and provide feature sets, here are two little tutorials that ought to say it all.
And for a partner, Conductive Labs' MRCC brings MIDI and control routing to the post-laptop world. It features one button routing for each input and output, RGB LEDs, and OLED graphical display. The I/O specs are impressive - 11 inputs/21 outputs, (5 PIN DINs, 3.5MM MIDI jacks in both flavors, 4 USB host ports, and a USB client connection with 16 MIDI I/Os). The device also sports clock source/CV clock out, and will reportedly include filtering and MIDI effects (arpeggiator code borrowed from the NDLR, perhaps?) as well. The Kickstarter is overfunded, and they're talking about being 6 months out. It's a beautiful and useful bit of kit for your table full of smaller devices.
In Search Of The Black Box
If the implied goal of my KnobCon 2019 exploration involves new and interesting ways to perform with a minimum of gear, my far-and-away favorite find was 1010 Music's Black Box. If you're familiar with their other work, it's not hard to imagine how this lovely little device came to be: it combines features from their Bit Box sampling module with their Toolbox sequencer to create a touchscreen-based live performance module with a lot of great features. The Black Box is touchscreen-based: you can record and edit samples and sequences using a piano-roll interface on the fly, grab material from a microSD card, combine and recut loops, add pads, run one-shot files, connect the whole thing via a USB to your favorite modestly-sized keyboard, and save your samples and presets as you go. It's a tightly designed little package with a surprising amount of power that (to me, anyway) seems pretty intuitive in terms of its UI organization.
As things get small and screen/knob real estate space is a premium, the UI is a make-or-break situation. This one makes it, I think.
Aaron Higgins from 1010 Music didn't just spend his weekend describing and demoing the Black Box - he also teamed up with Chris Meyer from Learning Modular to turn in a lovely on-site ambient set, which you can listen to here:
Open Borders - Hard and Soft Wares
To the careful observer, it’s getting increasingly difficult to pigeonhole synth folks into discrete categories of the “She does hardware” or “He does software” variety. The truth is that while ideas from the hardware world have found their way into softsynth homages - and vice-versa - for some time, we’re now starting to see movement in both directions across the hard/software boundary by single developers. That new development was in evidence at this edition of KnobCon in one interesting physical instance.
At the end of the at the main entrance Ricky Graham manned the Delta Sound Labs booth. Any visitor to their website can't help but notice the ease with which they straddle the hardware and software worlds - there are links to free Max for Live devices, their amazing Stream VST/Audio Units plug-in, and a trio of Eurorack modules: the Mobula ARP-inspired ring modular, the Origami Buchlaesque wave folder, and the Oberheim-inspired Saber SEM filter. Delta Sound Labs have pitched their tent right along the open border.
Directly across the aisle from him, VCV virtual modular synth rack guru Andrew Belt had his virtual Eurorack populated with virtual versions of hardware we already know and love from the physical world - The 4ms Spectral Multiband Resonator, along with modules from Befaco, Erica Synths, Mutable Instruments, and Alright Devices, among others. And news in the VCV rack world? There are 11 or so Malekko modules on the way to a virtual rack near you soon!
Another version of the porous boundary involves ports of Eurorack hardware to virtual versions. While both VCVrack and Softube feature virtual ports of Eurorack hardware devices that run in their virtual racks, there have also been other approaches: ports based on the open sourcing of the code for Mutable Instruments Eurorack modules, for example - notably, Volker Böhm's MSP external version of their Plaits module or Timo Rozendal's Max for Live device versions of their Braids and Clouds modules. Beyond what was on display and tales of that permeable membrane, there are rumors of more still yet to come in terms of hardware to plug-in technologies from the Eurorack module makers themselves ( There are intriguing whispers of “something in the works” from Noise Engineering, for example) that'll be worth keeping an eye on.....
Interesting rumors aside, the soft-to-hard migrations on display at KnobCon: Starling Via started out releasing VCV modules and then migrated to hardware shortly afterwards, along with Vult. And if you turned left on the main aisle and made your way down to the 1010 Music booth, you'd have seen a hardware version of the MOK Waverazor plug-in, patchcord inputs and all.
Not Droning, Waving
Quite a lot of the buzz at KnobCon 2019 centered on something that was much on view in both the synth and Eurorack worlds, but not exactly new: wavetable synthesis. And by "not exactly new," I mean that there are a slew of lovers of the technique out there - from the PPG Wavecomputer to the Waldorf Microwave synths, as well as the Creative Labs' AWE-32 soundcard and others.
Similarly, if you’re a Eurorack Morphing Terrarium, E350 Quad Morphing VCO or Shapeshifter VCO owner, you know the drill – grouped sets of waveforms you can morph among in a way that provides you with options for timbral contral sans East Coast filtering or West Coast wavefolding.
Want to do a little Max/MSP dive into the subject? Well, you can download Rasmus Ekman's squinewave~ external and morph to your heart's content.
Another wavetable rabbit hole would involve spending some quality time with Yofiel's recent release of his Husserl2 standalone synth, which lets you modulate both the oscillators and LFOs from several modulation sources.
So what's up with wavetables at KnobCon? This KnobCon gave us the chance to try out a couple of new(ish) Eurorack modules in the flesh, from the now more widely available 4MS Spherical Wavetable Navigator to Delptronics' snazzy Theremorph, which lets you run down your synthesis via standard MIDI or some unique Theremin-like optical control. It's one thing to read up on modules like these, and quite another thing to be shepherded through their use in non-virtual space by someone really familiar with them - they're deep and beautiful additions to your bag of tricks.
I rounded those offerings off with the chance to check out the most serious buzz on the exhibition floor: two new keyboard (and rackmount) wavetable synths whose pricetags were as attractive as their feature sets. Let's do the "duelling high-buzz wavetable synths" in alphabetical order....
A New Kid On The Block
In the boutique world of Eurorack, it's not that much of a surprise to discover a new kid on the block - it's part of the fun. But an entirely new keyboard synth and its rack-mount cousin appearing from a company I'd never heard of? That's news.
Meet Hydrasynth from Hong Kong-based Ashun Sound Machines (ASM). Each of the Hydrasynth's eight voices feature three wavescanning oscillators with 219 different waveforms per voice (each with four waveshaping "mutators"), five LFOs as modulation sources which offer 11 linear/exponential smoothable waveshapes, and five linear/exponential ADSRs thrown into the mix.
All those possibilities would be one hot mess were they not tamed by one of the most intuitive user interfaces I've encountered in a very long time. The layout and controls are a joy to work with and explore, and you get to find all kinds of little things to love as you work - in my case, it was the polyphonic aftertouch on the device's pads and endless encoders on all the knobs. The box comes in at a very reasonable $799 MSRP ($1299 for the keyboard version) - major bang for the buck (and fun, too).
For the second bit of ferocious wavetable KnobCon buzz, meet the Argon 8. If you've been forced to dampen your interest in Modal Electronics’ amazing expensive 00 series of wavetable synths, there was some really good news for you: Their new synth packs a solid wallop without emptying your pockets. The 8-voice Argon 8 includes 24 banks of 5 morphable waveform sets, many of which come from that Modal 002 as well as a whole range of mathematically generated tables. Those wavetable outputs can be sliced, diced, chopped and channeled by 28 wavetable processors including de-rez, wave folders, wave shapers, phase shapers and rectify that can be applied to the wavetables, too.
It all passes through two-pole resonant filter that can be morphed from low pass, through band pass, to high pass, and it’s controllable by way of a well-designed mod matrix. Finally, the built-in sequencer can be quantized or not (hooray!) and includes four recordable / editable parameter animations. Yeah, you read that right. You can your front-panel actions (knob twisting, joystick manipulation) and apply that material to your performance in the same way you’d play back notes – which sat right next to the programmable and “lockable” front panel joystick as my two favorite performance features.
At an MSRP of $699, this 37-note keyboard synth is a great buy, albeit a different instrument from the Hydrasynth. I suspect that spending a little serious time checking out the videos will help you decide which one's right for you.
FM - No Static At All
(Sorry about the Steely Dan quote....)
But KnobCon wasn't all about new products and clusters of ideas in product form - a lot of us wanted to hear John Chowning. And we did.
The Saturday evening festivities involved a buffet/banquet that featured Dr. Chowning's keynote address. The good news is that the KnobCon folks put it up for all of you to see:
On Sunday afternoon, that keynote address was followed by a detailed tutorial on FM synthesis which mixed the history of its development with examples of how FM was "taught" to imitate the timbre of families of acoustic instruments. It was an illuminating combination of history, theory, and sound, and was a fitting end to a great weekend.
Oh, and since I know some of you may be wondering - yes, I did it. John was very gracious and maybe just a little bit amused to encounter a fanboy bearing a 30-year old CD ("You can get this online in digital format, you know...." he said). In situations where you get to meet your heroes and to thank them personally, I am without shame.