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I actually like modular systems...

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  • #16
    Originally posted by Steve Conner View Post
    Mark, what do your "EPFM Switch" modules do?
    The EPFM switches (i.e., Anderton's Electronic Projects for Musicians) are CD4016-based switches. There may well be better solid-state or even relay-based switches, but the reason I like them is because they need a latching SPST switch to change states. That makes it possible to parallel a latching SPST footswitch with a momentary switch to have the option of "punch-in" as well as "set and forget". Point me to something that does that, and is sonically better without substantially more cost, and I'll happily adopt those. By "punch-in", I mean a state-change that lasts only as long as your foot is on the switch; just like in the old days of tape decks. It reverts back as soon as your foot is lifted. If you've ever wanted to perform "The End" from Abbey Road, yourself, it's just the ticket. I just stick them in a strategic side by side arrangement in a floor unit. I can also stick the momentary switches for two EPFM switches within a critical distance of each other that I can do dual punch-ins (i.e., select two loops/clusters) with one foot. As well, the use of plastic stereo phone jacks (insulated from the chassis ground if one so desires) allows me to control two switches per module from a remote footswitch, given the nature of the circuit. I haven't finished building it for this unit, but I had the same switching setup for a similarly-conceived (though MUCH smaller) rack unit I built in the late 80's, and I liked it a LOT.

    In some respects, it might be better to have built the chassis to have 12 installation slots with a kind of permanent "switch-bay" row along the bottom. The way I figure it, you stick 4 solid-state switches in there, and connect to a foot-control floor unit via a MIDI cable (it wouldn't use MIDI, just the convenience of easily bought 5-conductor MIDI cables). In retrospect, as nifty as having the 2-switch modules is, running patch cords from, say, the upper right module (where effect X might be) to the lower left module (where the switch module might be) can start to get in the way if adjusting things in between. A switch bay that ran along the bottom might have provided a shorter distance between any given effect module and the nearest switch jacks.

    I was also pondering making a module with a version of this switch: Given just how many fuzzes this beast is capable of having on standby, the thought of being able to cycle through them in an efficient fashion is appealing.

    I think far too many of us place too much emphasis on the tonal adjustments of individual pedals, without thinking much about tone as arising from the macro-control of the whole signal path. True performance control consists of not only being able to wiggle a foot treadle and call up patches of presets on a Digitech or Zoom unit, but of being able to easily reconfigure one's system, including effect order, multiple parallel paths, and combination-switching that does not require superfluous movements which interfere with the fluidity of one's playing or thinking. Remember, the goal is to be able to nail the tone you hear in your head at the speed those little tone muses pop into your thoughts.

    Now, I realize that a great deal of this is achievable through digital means, and digital multi-fx are heading in that direction. There are many of us, though, that still crave the idiosyncrasies of analog effects that can be easily modded, and are still a little skeptical of digital distortion units (even though digital everything else seems to sound fine to my ears). Perhaps more importantly, though, a modular system like the one I'm making for myself, is an open architecture system. Whatever a commercial multi-fx providesm, it will always be a relatively closed system, or if it isn't it will at least require devoting considerable time to comprehending the software enough to reprogram it. What I have here in analog form is instantly accessible, and offers unlimited flexibility.

    Oh yeah, I buy dual patch cables (four mini-plugs with 3ft of cable between each stereo end) for a buck or buck fifty at the dollar store, cut 'em up and add another mini phone plug to the free ends, so that my patch cables cost me about 80 cents each.
    Last edited by Mark Hammer; 11-17-2008, 02:59 PM.


    • #17
      One day I'll get the time to work over my own collection of miscellaneous pedals and pieces and put it into something like this:

      Steel Studs Modular Rack

      The rolled-steel structural members are the cheapest way I've found to get durable enclosures at a good price. Two of them and a piano hinge make for a unit that will fold up into its own carrying case.
      Amazing!! Who would ever have guessed that someone who villified the evil rich people would begin happily accepting their millions in speaking fees!

      Oh, wait! That sounds familiar, somehow.


      • #18
        I always did like that thinkpiece, and the overall idea.

        I guess the only part of it I didn't like was the more or less forced linearity of it. That is, it was optimized for this-goes-into-that-then-into-that-then-into-that-etc, with the respective stompswitches laid out from right to left or left to right. Up to a certain point (let's say an octet of most-often-used effects), it works great and is just what the doctor ordered. I'm a little sicker than that, so the linearity works against me. But it IS an elegant solution for a certain kind of player and set of needs. And every bit as cheap as the one I adopted.


        • #19
          Originally posted by Mark Hammer View Post
          I guess the only part of it I didn't like was the more or less forced linearity of it. That is, it was optimized for this-goes-into-that-then-into-that-then-into-that-etc, with the respective stompswitches laid out from right to left or left to right. Up to a certain point (let's say an octet of most-often-used effects), it works great and is just what the doctor ordered. I'm a little sicker than that, so the linearity works against me. But it IS an elegant solution for a certain kind of player and set of needs. And every bit as cheap as the one I adopted.
          Ahah, invoking the 'sick-puppy indeed' clause.

          You're absolutely correct. The one-channel version is a slam-bam, thank-you-m'am linear pedalboard.

          I was thinking more of the generalization of the channel to the two-channel and four-channel scenario. Take four 17" sections of channel. Spot weld them into two pairs, each parallel and sharing a side to give two open channels per section. ( I took a welding class in the local community college... heheheh, looking for things to melt) and cut/drill holes between to allow wire communications. Now you have a top and bottom, each with two channels. Fill three channels with effects, and put your series/parallel/multichain footswitching in the fourth channel. Do the piano hinge trick again and this folds into a steel-briefcase-like setup.

          But it's a lot of work. And does try to make you think linearly.
          Amazing!! Who would ever have guessed that someone who villified the evil rich people would begin happily accepting their millions in speaking fees!

          Oh, wait! That sounds familiar, somehow.


          • #20
            Hey, that's an impressive machine. I've been meaning to start work on synthesizer modules that were intended for use with an external source such as a guitar, but not in the spirit of what is generally accepted as the guitar and synthesizer duet. I usually avoid trying to make my guitar sound like a flute, for many different reasons.

            The possibilities that exist with voltage controlled routing, sequencing, low frequencies, knob tweaking, etc. would leave me playing for hours.

            How do you deal with signal levels in your modular rack? is it all kept at instrument/line level?



            • #21
              Yes. It is basically an upright pedal board, only with more flexibility. So, everything is at normal pedal levels. The only point of deparure would be the ability to take in line-level signals at the splitter-mixer modules and blend them with instrument-level ones.

              The idea was not so much to devise something new, per se, but to sidestep many of the problems of the old by implementing a few small refinements.

              The "problems of the old" are:

              - cost, weight, and size of pedals and all accompanying hardware (stompswitches, jacks, power connections)
              - awkwardness of fitting non-uniform-sized chassis into a compact workable space
              - difficulty of altering the order, changing the pedalboard composition, use of parallel paths, or any ad hoc patching
              - awkwardness of supplying power and power cables
              - obligatory spatial mapping of the footswitch to where the pedal can "fit"

              What I ended up with was cheap, light, compact, highly flexible, relatively neat, lets me stick the footswitches where they make the most sense to me, and lets me add more effects that strike my fancy.

              Those problems are generic to anyone, I suppose. In my own case, there is the additional nuisance of having to "reserve" space within a standard Hammond-type chassis for jacks, stopswitch, battery, power jack, etc., and the constraints that imposes on choice of board layout (if one is available) or room to stretch out if I go the perfboard route. The faceplates let me use boards that extend right out to the dimensions of the faceplate itself, and even stack them one behnd the other if necessary. Again, that is not necessarily an obstacle that applies to everyone.

              Thanks for the nod, though.


              • #22
                Wow, I just checked out the webpages for the ToneCore DDK. That's pretty cool!

                Steve, have you gotten yours yet? Have you tried any C programming on it, or have you just used assembly? I'm highly intrigued. I'm thinking about getting the stereo version and making some sort of controller to plug into the second channel to modulate the guitar signal in the first channel. Could be fun!



                • #23
                  Yes, I got it, but the bad news is I haven't even fired it up yet, I've been too busy with work.

                  I'm happy programming DSPs in assembler, so I don't intend to bother with the C compiler.
                  "Enzo, I see that you replied parasitic oscillations. Is that a hypothesis? Or is that your amazing metal band I should check out?"


                  • #24
                    So, I fully realize that this thread is a good 9 months old, but I have to say that Mark, you and R.G. are my heroes right now. Your discussion has been extremely illuminating. This is exactly the kind of thing I've been planning to build for the last couple of weeks. The only difference I can see between your set-up and my idea is that I had thought that rather than making modules of the individual effects it would be a good idea to fix each effect on the board, perhaps multiples of each (depending on the effect), then fix their in/outputs to a studio-style patch bay. This way you have unlimited control over your signal flow without having to swap around modules or worry about the wear and tear that that would cause (if I correctly understand how your unit is going to work).

                    It's not strictly speaking a truly 'modular' set up, but it seems like it would lend a lot to one's ability to play with the effect chain. It also adds the potential for affecting as many sources and having as many outputs as you have modules. Essentially the idea is to have a studio effect rack that you can carry around in a briefcase.

                    I know you guys might not ever come around this board any more (though I dearly hope you do), but if I may ask, can you guys think of any objections to doing it this way? or think any reasons why it might not work out the way I'm expecting it to? It seems to make perfect sense to me, but I'm still extremely new to any kind of design stuff.


                    • #25

                      I think your take on it is quite apropos. Personally, I can't see there being any sort of "textbook" or ideal modular format. The essence of modular is that the format you decide on is tailored to your processing needs, rather than the packaging format most convenient for manufacturers. And your needs are your needs, not necessarily mine, even though they might overlap a bit.

                      There have been plenty of attempts at modular systems in past, but what did not allow them to survive as well as modular synths did, was the fact that they had to be physically compatible with what other effects manufacturers were putting out. So how would you combine some fuzzes and filters you liked from manufacturer X, with those of a different format from manufacturer Y, and then run the whole thing through the Memory Man you cherished on the pedalboard in front of you? What stymied modular effects from becoming more widely available was siply the physical incompatibility, a challenge that did not seem to affect synth players who were completely comfortable with table-top frac-rac modules on large rack enclosures.

                      The difference now is that the increased ease of DIY allows folks like us to make complete effects systems along our own physical-package requirements, without having to worry about compatibility. I don't have to figure out how I'm gonna run cables to my Electric Mistress or Funny Cat because someone out there has whipped up a PCB layout for one that will let me stick it behind whatever I deem to be my "standard" module panel size.

                      And, as noted in an earlier post, being able to make many effects inexpensively means we don't necessarily have to choose between them. On one of my current 12-module boxes, I have a modded Bass Balls, a modded MXR Envelope Filter, and a modded Roland Funny Cat. They take up little room, and can even be used in conjunction with each other (I found out the other night that I could get some nifty S&H-like sounds using the Funny Cat and MXR unit together in a certain way). It also means the modules can be specialized and not require a maze of toggles to reconfigure them to something else. case in point. Lots of folks have realized they can "Uni-vibe" a phaser by changing cap values. But that's a lot of wiring that needlessly complicates matters. So, I made myself two Ross phaser clones, one tailored to phasing, and the other tailored to a Uni-Vibe sound. Didn't really cost that much more than the extra toggles would have cost me, gave me two effects I could stick wherever I wanted, and offered more options than one über-phaser.

                      I guess the only advice I would offer is to think long and hard about what your own current and eventual needs are. Size, weight and cost are likely in everyone's equation. Opportunity to expand probably is too, but what you decide on for your module packaging will depend on what is easily and cheaply available (mine was a product of a one-time deal I got on some pre-made panels), and where you decide the limits will be. In my case I figured there were a bunch of things I was never going to attempt to install behind those little black panels (like rack-mount delays), so I had to figure out how I was going to integrate the modules with the non-modules. That's where the splitter-mixer modules came from.


                      • #26
                        Thanks for the robust reply.

                        That's pretty much what I figured. I thought you might have had some other invisible motive for designing yours your way, some electronicky zen secret that would enable you to make the perfect box.

                        Another question for you... I can't decide between 1/4" and 1/8" connectors for the patch-bay and cables. Bantams were my first thought, but they're ritardously expensive and my budget is limited. My real concern is the durability of the 1/8" connectors, both male and female. I plan to take this box on the road with me and I need to know that I won't have connectors and jacks snapping off left and right. My human impulse is towards the quarters as they're bigger, which as we all know equals better. But if i'm going to be installing 10 to 12 effects, plus splitters and a 3 channel mixer I'll need good bit of real-estate, not to mention cables long enough to span the gap. Any thoughts?


                        • #27
                          I thought I replied to this, but I may have hit close instead of send while in a hurry.

                          Mini-jacks and plugs are simply much cheaper if you want a lot of them, and the cables turn corners more easily. For my part, I go to the "dollar store" and buy stereo to dual-mono mini-phone patch cords for a dollar or $1.50 each. I cut the cable somewhere appropriate and I end up with two molded mono cables that I solder another plug onto, and a stereo patch cable that I can use in future. In my case, cost is a big driver of everything.

                          You are correct to worry about the roadworthiness of mini phone plugs/jacks, however they have been a mainstay of the modular synth crowd for a long long time, without problem. For interfacing with stuff that is not part of the modular setup, certainly one is wise to go with 1/4" jacks. For the remote switching module, I run a 1/4" jack/plug. I also have a 1/4" in and out jack for the splitter/mixer module.


                          • #28
                            Originally posted by R.G. View Post
                            But from the response here, I'm thinking I'm the only one.
                            I think more people would like them if they had access to one.

                            I don't have one, but always wanted to make something modular after seeing Anderton's unit in Device oh so many moons ago.
                            It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure. — Albert Einstein



                            • #29
                              I like the modularity part of modular systems, but to me the two big issues are 1) compatability and 2) size of setup. I think there's a huge amount of variability in the number of pedals most folks use. At the moment I do not even own a single pedal. (Though I'm at a point in my life where I'm starting to think about this n that). Some folks have huge pedal boards. For the guy who uses one to three pedals, does it really make sense? I think it would make sense with a modular system to produce a variety of host box sizes - 1, 2, 4, 8 I dunno.

                              For compatibility, how many people own all one brand of pedal? I realize this is a homebrew forum, so this is kind of academic. (But I felt the question was bigger than just homebrewers). For a commercial system to work, you'd need to balance the customers desire to mix n match their favorite pedals with the mfrs desire to have unique branding. The marketing guys just cringe at the thought of their stomp boxes all looking alike, especially like the competition two tiers down in price. Then there are legitimate reasons (marketing is also legitimate, but we're tinkerer/engineer types so we'll ignore that one) why someone once in a while wants an +/- 18v rail instead of 9v, or an extra pin, or whatever.

                              One module I'd consider placing in my setup would be power for my EMG's through the cable. Any opinions on running 0.10" headers on the inside vs mass of topside cables? How much replugging on the set does anyone actually do? How about individual bypass vs "chain selector" stomping? (A chorus might need an individual stomp, but I might rather put my "80's crunch rhythm" chain on a single switch.)
                              Last edited by Nate; 09-29-2009, 12:00 PM.


                              • #30
                                Anyone interested in kicking around ideas? For instance, does it live on the floor in pedalboard space, or does it sit in a box with floor pedals like Mark's? Are you thinking modular as in "compressor goes into distortion goes into eq goes into chorus"? Or are maybe modular as in "distortion doesn't have tone controls - I just stick an EQ module on either side of the clipping module." You could then make some assumptions about the input/output parameters and strip out a lot of the boilerplate circuitry, saving it for the ins and outs. Any format discussion - 1590BB size boards, steel stud sized, or maybe cards on edge like a bus plane system without the bus (gives high front panel density and a lot of flexibility on board size, but pretty much precludes a stomp box layout).