The Utility of Utilities
We talk to a lot of people who are new to modular. Everyone likes the fun modules: oscillators, filters, effects, sequencers, you know. The stuff that is easy to wrap your head around. But what about the less exciting more practical modules? In this post, we’ll talk about the not-so-exciting modules out there and how they can help you use the rest of your system more effectively.
Sometimes, you have a CV signal but it’s modulating its destination WAY TOO MUCH. You need an attenuator! Let’s use the example of modulating a filter with an envelope. You don’t necessarily want to open and close the filter through its entire range with every note; that could sound pretty extreme, especially in a gentle patch. Check out the graphic below:
We basically made our envelope half the voltage using an attenuator, which means it doesn’t open our imaginary filter as much. Useful! Attenuators are particularly useful on modules where fine control makes a big difference, like our oscillators. We make an attenuator called Sinc Defero, SSF/WMD make the Quad-Atten, Doepfer makes the A-183-1… Everybody makes one and they’re all a little different! if you want an attenuator, you’ll be able to find one that suits your needs.
What’s it sound like?
Attenuverters: they’re just like attenuators, but they’re bipolar. This means that instead of just making a signal bigger or smaller, they can also invert the signal, making it upside-down. Check out the graphic below to see what that would look like on that same envelope:
Notice that the envelope still starts at 0 volts, but instead of going up to positive 5 volts, it goes down to negative 5 volts instead. Our module, Lapsus Os, does attenuversion, so does Shades by Mutable Instruments, and Maths, by Make Noise. It’s another type of module that’s pretty common and very useful.
Attenuversion can be useful on its own, but I most often use it paired with this next technique...
Offsets change where a signal starts. That means that instead of starting at 0 volts, we could offset our envelope so that it starts at, say, 2 volts instead. Remember in the previous example how I said I often use offset with inverted signals? Check this out:
Here, we’ve inverted our envelope and then offset it by 5 volts so that it covers the exact same range that it did before we started changing it, but completely upside down.
Our post on Ducking shows a practical example of how you might use this combination. Want to do this yourself? Roti Pola can offset! So can Lapsus Os, Maths, Shades, and lots and lots of other modules, too.
Speaking of Roti Pola, another often overlooked utility is mixers. While we mostly think of mixers as being used with audio, there are also mixers that can be used with CV. Utilities that work with CV are DC-coupled, which is a technical term. You can ignore all the circuitry knowledge if that isn’t your thing and just skip to knowing DC coupled means that it works with stuff that is constant frequency or very low frequency, like offsets and LFOs. (The opposite is an AC-coupled circuit; these will filter out these low-frequency circuits and only work with high-frequency stuff like audio.)
Mixing CV can be used to create really cool results. For instance, we can take two decay envelopes of different lengths and combine them to get a different, musical envelope:
And, wouldn’t you know it, Roti Pola can mix CV too! You can also use something like the Intellijel Triatt, or Mutable Instruments Blinds. That’s the great thing about utilities, there’s tons of different ones!
Sidenote on Roti Pola: because it’s a mixer, we get lots of people asking about using it for audio. In a pinch, sure, go for it. But go for it knowing that your results will really vary: keep in mind that those attenuverting circuits don’t become non-attenuverting if you stick audio into them! RP is definitely designed for CV.
Precision adders are a lot like mixers. However, they’re incredibly precise, DC-coupled mixers designed to mix pitch CV. Mixing pitch CV is difficult because unless extremely high-quality parts are used, the mixed CV won’t be accurate and your sequences won’t play in tune. Nobody wants that! I usually use precision adders to transpose sequences with another sequencer to change keys in a patch.
The last utility we’re going to talk about is the VCA. Often, we use VCAs to control the volume of an oscillator, but guess what? We can use them with CV too! Well, some of them, anyway. Remember how we talked about DC-coupling? Some VCAs are DC-coupled, so we can use them with CV. We can basically use them like attenuators, but instead of controlling the amount of attenuation with a knob, we can control it with another CV signal! Here’s something like what that would look like:
VCAs are all over the place. There’s the Intellijel Quad VCA, the Steady State Fate Muton, Mutable Instruments Veils, 2hp VCA, Happy Nerding 3x VCA… there are a LOT of VCAs in the world is what I’m trying to say, and they’re a useful thing to have a few of.
Sometimes VCAs (or things that function as VCAs) are built into other modules. The Seca Ruina has a bypassable VCA in it that allows you to shape the envelope of the distortion, and many of our oscillators are complete voices that have the equivalent of a VCA; for this reason, BIA and MI, e.g., don’t need to be paired with an external VCA (but something like the Loquelic Iteritas does). Keep in mind though, that the SR isn’t DC coupled, so it only works for audio.
Let’s hear this, too. Using a similar patch to the last video, we’re using a 2hp VCA instead of an attenuator. The VCA is being modulated by Clep Diaz, which is changing the amount that the envelope modulates the filter. Cool!
Mults are another handy utility to have around. There are a few different types of mults: passive mult modules, like the Industrial Music Electronics Miggs, for example; passive mult cables, like TipTop Audio Stackcables; and active mults, like the Intellijel Buff Mult. Passive mults are great for things like clock signals and triggers. Active mults are often better for things like CV because they actively copy the signal so you won’t have any signal loss no matter how many times the signal is copied. Handy!
I often copy gates in my patches to, for instance, trigger two envelopes: one for a filter and one for a VCA.
Utilities don’t have to be boring. They should be utilized! They can help greatly with patches, both simple and complex, and offer a lot of room for variation and expression. They can allow you to do all sorts of interesting manipulation. What’s your favorite utility patch? Have a useful utility trick? Let us know about it or post it on social media and be sure to tag us!