Four Modeling Modules

I’m not really sure what qualifies for ‘modeling’ these days. There is no governing body that manages what you’re allowed to called ‘modeled’. ‘Model’ implies physical modeling, and so we think of strike and excitation/impulse generators fed into a resonant network. But ‘model’ could simply mean a broad category of macro oscillators that ‘model’ a specifc useful configuration. Let’s take a look at four digital modules that generate useful timbres outside of the traditional oscillator group.

Mutable Instruments Elements
The Mutable Instruments Elements is best thought of as two modules: an exciter source that can be configured and continuously manipulated and a resonantor section that processes the inpuse generated by the exciter source. The exciter has three models that can be used one at a time or in combination.

As good as Elements is at what it does, the focus (and results) are decidely narrow. On a utility vs. HP gradient, the Elements suffers. If you have HP to burn, the Elements is an useful and rewarding module.

Pros: Loads of continuous modulation sources for both the exciter and resonator. Stereo outputs. Fun to use.
Cons: 34HP

Qu-Bit Surface
As of this writing, the Surface ships with seven models. One is a snare. One is a kick drum. Two are ‘electric piano’ FM systems. If these are not interesting to you, you’re down to three models: pluck, bell and prepared piano.

The bell type has four variations: vibraphone, steel drum, bayan tabla and dahina tabla spread across the tone knob. This sounds a lot more exciting than it turns out to be. I was hoping this model would have some more variation and response, and it’s probably the best of the bunch, but not enough to justify the module.

The prepared piano is very interesting but so incredibly specific that use of it will immediately identify this module. This would be a great addition if the module had, like 100 models to choose from.

The pluck is a karplusy-sounding string model.

The CV inputs on the Surface seem to be sampled only on trigger. This makes sense, given the polyphonic nature of the module, but don’t expect to apply continuous modulation after the note has been triggered.

I feel like the Surface hardware and engineering is great, especially at 10HP, but the included models are only the shallowest exploration of what is possible. Perhaps there will be a software update in the future, but, for me, it wasn’t useful enough to keep.

Pros: Smallest of the bunch at 10HP, stereo outputs, eight voice polyphony
Cons: limited number of useful models & settings. Software capabilities need a major update before this module is a contender.

https://youtu.be/ykGjowTgQOo

Intellijel Plonk
One of the reasons I like modulars is a 1:1 knob-per-function mapping. Newer modules, especially digital modules have a tendency to deviate from this principle. As a synth-nerd from the 80’s, I have already exceeded my lifetime recommended allowance of tiny LCD screens. The capabilities of Plonk are exceeded by the available physical user interface, and so, here we are again, with a screen and a data entry encoder. I love what the Buchla 200e system set out to achieve, but I also know that I don’t historically get along all that well with modules with a screen, which is why I don’t own a 200e.

There are beautiful haikus of user interface economy that exist as examples: the Poly Mod section of the original Prophet-5 and the four primary continuous parameters of the Morphagene. These examples capture an incredibly broad set of transformations in an economic use of space, without an alphanumeric display.

Plonks exciter section has about a dozen editable parameters and the resonator section adds another ten (with six different resonator models (string, beam, marimba, drumhead, membrane and plate), and we haven’t talked about modulation routings. That’s a lot of parameters. Not as much as a Yamaha DX7, but the data entry interface is similar.

One could be content with the handful of presets provided. There’s lots to explore with the dedicated X, Y and Decay knobs and mod input. If you’re going to commit to the Plonk, this will require some reading glasses and good, old-fashioned menu diving. If the Elements downside is the size of the module, Plonk represents the alternative approach: a smaller module, but lots of software manipulation via a rotary encoder.

Pros: Best name of the bunch. Good variety of models. Economical use of space. Flexible.
Cons: Tiny screen.

Mutable Instruments Rings
The Rings is often described as the resonator section of the Elements. If that is the case, then what do you use for an exciter? Well, you use the rest of your modular to create an impulse. The time I spent with the Elements gave me a lot of practice on what sounds good going into the resonator. If you happen to have a Plaits, (and who doesn’t, it seems, these days) then many of the models from the Plaits work well, especially the highly-transient, percussive ones.

Rings has three primary modes:

  • Strings, membranes and tubes
  • Strings coupled together and vibrating in sympathy
  • Strings with a variable amount of inharmonicity

Each mode has a lot of variety and timbral variation and responds organically to different kinds of inputs.

Pros: sounds great, easy to use, small, no menus
Cons: Like many Mutable products, some useful, but secret functions are hidden, non-obvious or difficult to access.

Associate Professor, Electronic Production and Design, Berklee College of Music Opinions: my own