Modular live performance: controlling volume.

Technical notes on integrating modular synthesizer with other sound systems.

Gahlord Dewald :: 01/02/2022 :: Mānoa, Hawai‘i

Modular Live Performance

When performing live on modular among the first challenges I had was getting the gain staging “right.” Here are 3 steps to set up a modular synth to work with live performance:

  1. Determine if you want a cleanThis article assumes you want a clean sound; I usually add saturation and distortion in other ways. or distorted sound.
  2. Set your modular outputs as hot as you can, so that the entire system is running as loud as it can without distorting. Be careful, do not use headphones, you can blow stuff up including your ears.
  3. Run the signal into a mixer.An alternate/addition to step 3 is to use an output module in the synth. This will turn things down for you most of the time. However, if there is noise in your system related to grounding or other issues that noise may present itself in your output module and thereby negate the benefit of the Eurorack system design. At the mixer, set the gain and/or volume fader very very low–add a pad if you have one–then raise it very very slowly to taste.

The general idea behind the above steps is that Eurorack is a “noisy” standard–all those unbalanced patch cables, all those different powered thingies all connected by skinny little traces. In designing the spec they made a choice to keep it all unbalanced but run it very very loudThis was a good decision, in my opinion. It saves us all a great deal of money in the cost of cables and makes for a simpler system design., so that we turn it down after the sound gets out of our box; noise floor effectively disappearing.

Obviously our mileage varies and some modules are noisy.My Erbe-Verb whines so much that every few months I swear it off and then I relent because god-machine-angelic-halo reverb is hard to give up. But generally speaking if I run the Eurorack audio sources as hot as possible and turn down in the thing that follows the Eurorack synth (in my case a Mackie mixer) then most/all of the noise is no longer audible.

A modular synthesizer
This modular synth has a pair of mixers and attenuators in the 1u rows to the right to help control volume levels.

I use a mixer as my next stage from the Eurorack because I never know what the house sound system will be like and my Mackie 802 can feed out XLR, TRS, or TS pairs to the Front of House. For recording or once I know what a venue’s sound system is like I often just use my TAI-4 module to XLR/line level.

For my double bass + modular setup I use my amplifier’s effects send to get into my eurorack (via a Line In tile from Pulp Logic) and a return to the amplifier (via a Line Out tile from Pulp Logic, or sometimes not and just keep the volume at near-0 at return on the amp) and adjust to taste, feeding FoH from the amplifier’s Line Out. Yes this means my signal is mono in these situations. I have a stereo version of it but have never gigged with it.

Hope this is helpful to people trying to figure out this part of performing live. I also hope that people who are smarter than me chime in and give some thoughts on how they handle the gain staging related issues for performing and recording.