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Schlappi Engineering Nibbler

Eurorack Module By William Stokes
Published July 2024

Schlappi Engineering Nibbler

I am reminded by the Nibbler, as I was reminded by the Three Body, of how perfectly modular synthesis often rests on the boundary between art, maths and philosophy — a composite school more often associated with the great thinkers of antiquity than with electronic musicians of the 21st Century. Of course, Schlappi Engineering are far too iconoclastic to wear that kind of intellectualism on their sleeve, and literally: one of their T‑shirts features the blackletter‑set slogan ‘We’re Here To F**king Party’ and I’m yet to see evidence to the contrary.

At the core of the Nibbler is the concept of counting in binary. As the saying goes — there are 10 types of people: those who understand binary, and those who don’t. If you’re in the latter camp, fear not: for the sake of brevity, you need only get your head around the binary values between one and 15, which the Nibbler ostensibly counts to and from in various different ways, firing out gates and voltage values as it does so. To be honest, you don’t even really need to do that: as we’ve come to expect from Eric Schlappi and company, the Nibbler is as smart a module as it is accessible. So it’s really up to you how deep down the conceptual rabbit hole you want to go.

That concept is nonetheless an elegant and rich one: the Nibbler essentially takes the simplest fundamentals of computing and re‑introduces that into the analogue domain as a musical principle. It works in 4‑bit, simply meaning it has four on‑or‑off stages, and a maximum value of 15, or 1111, because that’s where all four stages (bits) are ‘on’. The four bits’ outputs look a lot like a clock divider, and can almost work as such; but they behave very differently, firing in different combinations up to that maximum value of 1111, after which the accumulator will ‘overflow’ (firing a singular gate out of the output called Carry, as it does so) and either start again from zero, or from whichever value carries over from 15 if it’s counting in greater increments than one. Don’t worry, it gets easier.

Patch in a clock and it’ll begin counting: 0001, 0010, 0011, 0100, 0101, 0110, 0111 and so on. Each of the ‘on’ bits (the number 1s above) delivers a gate, and there’s also a stepped voltage output which represents the sum of all the bits’ values. You might have gathered by now that different combinations of gates firing off makes for an excellent, quick way to trigger multiple percussive sounds in an array of interesting combinations, while the stepped CV output behaves more like a downsampled ramp wave. There’s also a second stepped voltage output that is identical to the first but with a phase offset of 0, 45, 90 or 180 degrees. Patch this with an offset to a second oscillator, for example, for a faux‑delay or even a melodic canon effect.

Now, you may be thinking: ‘OK, underneath all those gates is a four‑bit accumulator. Who cares?’ Indeed, it’s quite easy on first impression to perceive the gates as simply firing off at random, if in time, and the stepped outputs little more than a clumsily quantised waveform. The answer to that question lies in the fact that as soon as you start to patch the Nibbler in, a method to the madness quickly emerges. After all — slightly dry as it might sound — mathematical divisions and multiplications are part of the very fabric of all music, both in the rhythmic and harmonic realms. With the Nibbler, then, combinations of triggers circulate and come back around at odd but also perfect moments for spontaneous and highly musical syncopation; frequencies are chewed up but retain their harmonic sense. It can be a clock divider if you want it to be, but feed it audio‑rate pulses and it will spit out all manner of chiptune or dial‑up modem‑style sounds, its frequencies orbiting the frequency of your oscillator, not least delivering a variety of handy sub‑oscillator options. I enjoyed paralleling it alongside an oscillator for some additional harmonic detail and movement, even using it as a quasi‑bit‑crushing, almost‑chord‑generating effects send.

There’s little lost in casting the abacus to one side and joyously flicking switches simply to see what happens.

And this is where the array of controls and CV inputs to influence the Nibbler’s behaviour become quite exciting: four ‘Add’ switches allow it to count in ones, twos, fours or eights, or any sum of these. There’s a Subtract switch (and jack) to have the Nibbler count backwards or forwards. A Shift input rotates the gate outputs, while a Sync/Async switch untethers incoming pulses to each bit’s individual gate inputs (that’s right, each bit has its own gate input) from that of the clock. There’s also a giant Reset button for some performative disruption, and the rest. There’s far more here than I can fit into my column space, but let me assure you that it’s more than enough. At the end of the day, much like the Three Body, there’s little lost in casting the abacus to one side and joyously flicking switches simply to see what happens. Slam dunk.