Those familiar with the YouTube channel of Eurorack expert Mylar Melodies may remember a particular video in which he deftly expounds why sample & hold circuits can be so much more than what they’re used for a majority of the time. Sample & hold represents a function that is interesting and exceedingly useful in theory, but tends to boil down to a relatively rudimentary application in practice, which is essentially a random voltage generator.
Upon unboxing the Garden Listener, the debut module from nascent Italian developers Clatters Machines, my first thought was that despite piquing my interest, such a module may well find itself consigned to the same category. The Garden Listener is a remarkable module which uses twin probes to pick up impulses from the leaves of plants, skin or any other bioelectrical surface, and convert them reliably into MIDI and CV messages. Three voltage outputs emit triggers, gates and variable voltages, while the module’s 3.5mm MIDI output allows for integration with just about anything that accepts MIDI. An onboard quantiser gives the option to convert incoming voltages into any one of five scales, and it’s all packaged in a nifty 8HP.
The probes themselves ship with detachable adhesive pads for attaching to your favourite (or least favourite) houseplant, and I must say it’s immensely gratifying to stand back and see an actual living plant patched into one’s system like a module. It’s a definite statement piece for any studio. But patched to a sound source, what does it actually do? The short answer is something quite random: a gate here, a note change there. Sometimes in clusters, sometimes sparse. Upon a cursory look, if one was to be cynical the word Krell would come to mind (the ubiquitous and easy self‑generating patches inspired by the electronic soundtrack of the 1956 movie Forbidden Planet). Such a response, however, would say more about my ability and creativity as a synthesist than it would about the module itself.
Just as Mylar Melodies illustrates in his exploration of sample & hold, such fundamental functions have limitless applications, and applying those functions well is the test of any synthesist; something I found out as soon as I began to push the Garden Listener’s functionality a little bit. For one thing, it was thrilling to hear the probes responding differently to different things, attaching them to the leaves of a plant (succulents worked particularly well), pressing them to my temples (which brought out more intense clusters of notes and triggers) and even pressing them to my heart, at which point the module began shooting gates, triggers and notes all over the place. Perhaps it’s my imagination, but something about the Garden Listener’s flourishes of triggers, gates and CV felt, dare I say it, organic.
So, to the challenge of application. Patching the Garden Listener’s trigger and CV outputs to a sound source’s gate and volts‑per‑octave inputs achieved quick and easy results, but I soon realised there’s a world of fun to be had by, for instance, patching the gates to trigger and reset a quick sequence, patching the CV to a VCA via an inverter for an almost tape‑like instability effect or even just using it to generate a drone and modulate it according to one of the Garden Listener’s quantised scales. Clatters made the right decision to incorporate three separate outputs instead of two, which makes all the difference. I also realised that by interfacing biological impulses with synthesis, Clatters have achieved something that very few developers have managed to do: create a new fundamental function. Furthermore, it’s not as though Clatters have decided to err on the safe side by releasing an oscillator or a sequencer for their first module — to go this off‑kilter straight out of the gate is mightily impressive and highly creative.
We’ll be sure to keep a close eye on Clatters Machines. If the Garden Listener is anything to go by, expect exciting things.
‘You can never have too many VCAs’, goes the ubiquitous saying among modular communities. The humble voltage controlled amplifier is something of a microcosm of how to approach modular synthesis, in that the more laterally you approach it the more interesting your results will be. A quick recap: in simple terms a VCA is an amplifier that varies its gain depending on a control voltage. Generally it has one signal input, one output and one CV input in between the two to control its behaviour.
In practice I find it more helpful to think of a VCA as a kind of variable gate that lets voltage through according to the value of an incoming voltage, as opposed to amplifying it; a circuit to ‘put in the way’ of almost any signal path in a modular system. Patch an oscillator into your VCA’s input and an LFO into its CV input, and voila, you’ll hear a pulsing oscillator which gets louder when the wave is high and quieter when the wave is low. Speed up that LFO and the pulses will get faster. Keep speeding it up to audio rate and you’ll start to create new tones entirely.
Now things get more interesting. Since VCAs often come in pairs, we could put VCA 2 in the path of our audio‑rate LFO controlling VCA 1; feeding a second LFO into the CV input of VCA 2 to control the amount that LFO 1 is controlling VCA 1. The result is a dynamic, multi‑dimensional sound made with just two LFOs and a single oscillator. Wondrous!
Far more than just about volume, VCAs can constitute the creative heart of a patch. Chaining more of them into the mix will exponentially increase their scope, leading us back to the aforementioned maxim that you can never have too many. If in doubt, put a VCA in the way! William Stokes