Some of my first exposure to (and fascination with) electronic music came by way of Tangerine Dream, Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis, Eno, and Kraftwerk — mysterious towering walls of modular synths emitting dense and intricate rippling swirls of blips and pulses. Music that was mechanically rhythmic yet sounded almost organic in its complexity.
I filed those wonderful sounds away as “modular magic”, and even when I learned a bit about sound design and MIDI sequencing, those intricate modular textures seemed orders of magnitude out of reach. Over time I learned about arpeggiators and analog step sequencers (and acid house and the 303) and how to make a synth line groove. A skillfully sequenced bassline or lead synth is still one of the most beautiful and hypnotic sounds there is, and a little bit of filter modulation, effects, and swing control can make evoke a remarkable amount of rhythmic and timbral complexity out of a really simple set of notes. But even with all the swing and multi-tap delays in the world, it’s not That Modular Sound.
I learned about polyrhythms / cross-rhythms somewhere in the context of hand percussion, and knew polyrhythm was a thing in African music, jazz, and even metal, but never explored it much firsthand other than learning a couple of jembe rhythms. So it was a pretty big aha! momen recently when I figured out that a lot of That Modular Sound was sequenced polyrhythms.
I was recently made aware of the 4ms Rotating Clock Divider, a sequencing module for Eurorack modular synths. The RCD takes a clock pulse as input, and has 8 outputs which trigger at different subdivisions of that clock pulse. That is, if the input clock “ticks” at 1200ms, the outputs will trigger at 600, 400, 300, 240ms and soforth. This makes it easy to dial in a “4 against 3″ rhythm, or “2 against 5 against 6″, and once you dress THAT up with some modulation and effects, some deeply enticing regions of Computer World are revealed.
While I do not presently have access to a Eurorack setup, I realized this was a concept I could replicate in software. Specifically, I saw where somebody had created a RCD patch in Reaktor to drive a modular rig. I’m much more familiar with Max/MSP than Reaktor, so a Max For Live patch sounded like a great project. With a bit of searching I found Michael Hetrick’s Euromax collection, a set of Max/MSP patches modeled after Eurorack modules, and the Metro Divider patch was a perfect starting point to build into a M4L MIDI effect. Continue reading