Down The Modular Rabbit Hole (An Interview With Special Circumstances)

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Special Circumstances [AUS] kicks off our ‘Deep Dive’ series with an in-depth look into his journey down the modular rabbit hole.

Previously producing under the alias ‘Boot’ as a Dubstep producer, Tim has since shifted his style towards the deep, cerebral and hypnotic sounds of Grey Area. Special Circumstances pushes the envelope, often challenging what’s possible outside of the realm of cookie-cutter electronic music.

Hey Tim, what’s new for you? What have you been working on?

I’ve just come off 6 weeks holidays (I’m a high school music teacher in my day job), so that allowed me a lot of time to work on new material. I’ve been working in a couple of different tempos, particularly trying to do a bit of a grey area take on 140, but also still working with the 170/127 thing.

I’ve just finished up a remix for Monarch Records (a Sydney DnB label), and I’m plugging away at the massive backlog of tunes and modular jams I’ve recorded during my holidays. I’m currently in a positive, creative and constructive headspace when it comes to making music, I’m excited about the work I’m creating and having a lot of fun at the same time.

You’ve really immersed yourself in the modular sphere as of late. We’re really curious, what led you down that path? What is it about modular synthesis that inspires you?

Yeah it is basically a full-blown obsession now.

I wasn’t totally green when it came to the concepts of modular as I had been using Reaktor Blocks for a few years before I started my own system. I had integrated a lot of techniques in my production workflow that I use now with my modular with Reaktor.

As far as setting up my own rig, I would be lying if I said that peer pressure didn’t factor into my decision. A few of my good friends have modular setups and I speak to them almost daily about synthesizers.

I visited a friend’s studio and messed around with his rig, immediately I felt a sense of connection that was missing from my composition practice at the time – it was like playing an instrument, the use of expression and feel you could get by interacting with the system – it was different yet familiar at the same time, having been a guitarist for over 20 years – it was a similar feeling to jamming on that.

There is also an element of uncertainty and surprise, kind of like jamming in a jazz or other improvisational setting, it just makes creating music a hell of a lot of fun to do!

What was the first piece of modular gear you bought and how did you arrive at that choice?

The first module I bought was a Tiptop Z3000 VCO. It came up at a good price on a Facebook group and I figured I would start with a sound source because at least I would still be able to make some noisy drones whilst I built up the rest of the system.

It’s a great little Sawtooth core VCO with some interesting features that make it standard from your regular oscillators like a display that shows you the frequency of the pitch, which is switchable to a note readout so you can tune it easily, two FM inputs, waveshaper, two different sync methods. Being a saw core, the sine output has some upper harmonics so if you are after a near perfect sine I’d go with something else, but it has a great sound and I use it heaps.

How has modular changed the way you write and approach music?

Modular is hands-on, so I feel somewhat connected to the music I make, rather than clicking on a screen. It allows for so much variation and movement in the sounds you make.

Once I get a sound or sequence that I like, I’ll just hit record, started feeding modulation into the various CV ins and get busy with the pots – that way I’ll have a recording with tons of variations on the original idea that I can then spread out throughout a tune, rather than looping the same sound a bunch of times.

It’s also completely broken down most of the creative blocks I’ve previously run into. If I’m after a sound to put in a tune, I’ll go to the modular, jam out and record – rather than trawling through samples or softsynths to find something to fit in – something I’ve been guilty of in the past.

“Modular is hands-on, so I feel somewhat connected to the music I make, rather than clicking on a screen. It allows for so much variation and movement in the sounds you make.”
When starting a track, do you initially have an idea in your head that you want to get out, or do you just jam around until something happens? Has modular synthesis changed the way you approach workflow, and starting a song?

Both methods work depending on my mood, the situation and other factors. I rarely have a clear idea of what I want to do musically on a track when I start (does anybody?), I think part of the fun of making music is the little surprises that push you in directions you might not have thought of beforehand. That said, I might have an idea of a certain vibe or be inspired by something I’ve read, watched or experienced that acts as a creative kindling to spark the rest of the track.

My current method of starting a tune is turning the modular on, turn the screen off and jam away just like I would on the guitar. Once I get something I like, I’ll turn the screen back on and start programming in some drums.

I’ll usually start with a 909 Kit just to get the groove locked, then I’ll build the kit in a drum rack to suit the tune.

So to answer your question, yes modular has dramatically changed the way I approach making music throughout the entire creative process. I’m using my ears more than looking at a screen, I’m using my hands more than clicking and drawing automation with a mouse and I think this is all reflected in the music I’m currently making.

How much reprocessing occurs once you’ve recorded to your DAW? Do you like to keep things raw or do you go to town with reprocessing?

It depends on the sound, but generally, I don’t do a lot of processing on modular sounds, I prefer to let them speak for themselves. Modular audio often has a lot of extraneous low-end information, so I cut that with an eq if it’s not needed, plus the standard eqing so it sits in the track.

I’ll usually apply some reverb (Valhalla) and delay in the box, although I’ve just finished building a Dervish FX module so that will take care of some of those duties in the rack now.

Some transients can get pretty spikey if you haven’t been careful with your envelope attack settings (happens a lot if you’re in the heat of a jam and record it) so I’ll use some saturation and/or compression to reign them in a bit. On that note, I recently built a Nonlinearcircuits Mogue mixer, which is a clone of both the Moog CP3 mixer and a Moog VCA. It has these beautiful saturation that can go from really subtle warmth and character, as well as taming the transients – to mega-driven analog clipping. I used it on a sub a made for a tune I’m currently working on and it is just absolutely huge.

“I don’t do a lot of processing on modular sounds, I prefer to let them speak for themselves.”
Is there a favourite module in your rack that contributes a large part to your distinctive sound?

My favourites change depending on the week, but there are a few key modules that I couldn’t live without. I have an Expert Sleepers ES3/ES6 combo that allows me to send audio and CV signals to and from my PC. It runs on ADAT from my audio interface via an optical cable.

The ES6 has 6 inputs so I generally use that to multitrack record modular jams and have different plugins on each channel, and the ES8 has 8 outputs, I use it to clock my system to Ableton, send samples into the modular, send CV from VCV rack, lots of options.

As far as sound goes – I use the Make Noise Optomix quite frequently — that has a bit of its own sound. It’s a dual low-pass gate that has this really nice plucky quality to it, which I use a lot for sequences.

Most of my pads are done in the uBurst – I’ll usually record a sample into it, hit the freeze button and let my Nonlinearcircuits Sloths (three slow chaotic LFOs) control it – fantastic for evolving pads. For my tune Grey Eminence, I sample a few seconds of a Wolves In The Throne Room song that turned into this 2 minute evolving choral pad. For a new tune I’m working on, I played an A minor chord on my acoustic guitar into it which turned into this twisting ethereal atmosphere. Those two modules are meant for each other.

Modular synthesis is going through quite a resurgence at the moment. Acts like Trent Reznor, Richard Devine, Junkie XL and many others have all helped popularize it — what are your thoughts though on why its come back in such a big way?

Affordability would play a huge factor in the popularity of Eurorack. You don’t have to drop $10k on a rig straight away, you can buy that VCO for $300, learn to use that, then add more as you see fit – you won’t though, you just end up getting more and more!

YouTube would also be influential in feeding the hype for Eurorack. Guys like DivKid, Look Mum No Computer, Lightbath and Mylar Melodies are doing amazing videos and giving up a lot of knowledge. They are well worth checking out and will definitely get those “Eurocrack” hooks sunk before you even buy anything!

Do you have any plans to adapt your modular setup to a ‘live performance’ setting for gigs?

There’s a nucleus of an idea for live performance in my head, and some of the modules I’ve built recently have been with that in mind. The way I’m planning on doing it, for now, is to have a hybrid DJ/modular Ableton setup, with a Push and the modular.

That way I can DJ using my tracks, but also mix into sections when I can jam on the modular and program Drum Rack tracks on the fly. It will take some preparation but I’m keen to start doing it soon.

I’d also like to do some non-club orientated modular performances because I think that is where these systems really show what they can do, plus no pressure to make people dance!

Have noticed you’re into building your own DIY kits. Could you talk a little bit about what you’ve built and why you opted to go the DIY route?

I decided to start DIYing modules because it was the most cost-effective method for me to build up my system. You can do DIY modules for often half or even a quarter of the price of the same module pre-built, although with no warranty and you are your own quality control, so if anything goes wrong you have to troubleshoot it (which is half the fun!).

I had done electronics in high school so knew a little bit about soldering, but I did some easy practice kits from Jaycar before attempting any modules.

The first kit I built was an Erica Synths Polivoks VCF, which was a massive learning process for me, there were some errors which I ended up fixing and it works great now. Since then, I would say about two thirds of my system is DIY.

I’ve moved on from through-hole projects to SMD and rather than buying kits I purchase the PCB and panel then source the components from electronics suppliers like Mouser.

I’ve built a bunch of the Mutable Instruments modules including Rings, Braids, Plaits, uBurst (micro Clouds) and Tides, however, my favourite modules are those from Nonlinearcircuits, a synth designer from Perth who makes some of the most interesting modules around, a lot of which are based on chaos.

I’ve built his Sloth, Sloths, Mogue mixer, Timbre (wavefolder based on the timbre circuit from the Buchla Easel) and DP Filter (diode and transistor ladder that operate together).

Are you building instruments to suit your sound or is your sound shaping what you build?

I think they feed into each other. My current sound with Special Circumstances wouldn’t be what it is without modular – I had never used things like wavefolders, random/chaos and low-pass gates, as well as all the different sequencing methods prior to getting into modular.

Conversely, as these things have been instrumental in shaping my sound, when looking at building or buying new modules, I’m looking at gear that is going to compliment what I already have.

Particular when it came to sound sources, I already had two analog VCOs, plus the Mutable modules, so I focused on filters for a few months – going from one filter to five, increasing the timbral palette available to me.

What’s the ultimate goal for Special Circumstances? Do you have a vision you’re trying to execute — where are you at right now in terms of that?

When I started the Special Circumstances project, I thought it would be an easy transition from my old project (Boot), but it’s actually been an uphill struggle and I feel like I’m starting from scratch (which has its positive and negative aspects). I’ve come into this project after learning a lot from doing the Boot stuff, like being way stricter with my quality control, tighter with who I send tunes to, turning things down rather than saying yes to everything.

What I’m doing with Special Circumstances is my take on the Grey Area sound.

We already have an ASC, a Sam KDC, so I don’t want to be a poor imitation of what they are already doing incredibly well. Therefore, whilst I’m retaining that concept of having two different tempos running at the same time, as well as that deep, psychedelic feel of the style, I’m incorporating my own personal musical influences, timbral qualities, structural ideas and melodic and harmonic concepts.

It’s imperative that the music I’m making works on a dancefloor, no matter what else I do in the tune, it has to have groove – that is always the thing that is first and foremost in my mind when making a tune.

“It’s imperative that the music I’m making works on a dancefloor, no matter what else I do in the tune, it has to have groove – that is always the thing that is first and foremost in my mind when making a tune.”

Ultimately, I’d like to release on a label like Horo or Auxiliary as there aren’t many labels around releasing the type of music I’m making. On that note, I’ve considered self-releasing my music but the amount of promo and marketing involved in that is daunting and when it boils down to it I’m a musician, not a marketing expert. So, for now, I’ll keep plugging away in the studio, sending tunes to the people who need them, and spreading the good word of Grey Area down here in Australia.


Lockjaw - Empath (Special Circumstances' Grey Area Remix)
The Lockjaw remix was part of a remix comp – a post for it popped up on Facebook one day and I downloaded the stems just to mess around with it. I ended up really liking what I came up with and felt like I wanted to finish it, so I finished it up and sent it through for the comp. I didn’t end up winning, but Lockjaw hit me up to say he really enjoyed my take on it so I put it up for people to check out.
What are 3 pieces of your current studio setup that you just couldn’t live without?

The Modular

For the reasons mentioned earlier!

Ableton Live

I was a staunch Cubase user for about 18 years, I had dabbled in Ableton for probably about 10 of those years but decided last year to make the switch and it is one of the best decisions I’ve made in regards to my workflow.

Everything is so quick, immediate and intuitive that I can get the core of a track down in a few hours (something that may have taken me days previously, I can be pretty meticulous). There are still some things I miss from Cubase like the audio editing, but I’ve found workarounds for most things I used to do in there.

Sonarworks Reference 4

I rent and am unable to hang anything on the walls, therefore my treatment options are limited. I’ve noticed since using Reference that my mix translation has drastically improved, and I’m having to tweak less and less when I take the mix out for a car test or for the earbud walk around the block test.

What modules do you have on your radar that you want to buy next?

I’m in the process of building a new system which is mostly going to focus on Nonlinearcircuits modules. Rather than being an add on to the modules I already have, I’m approaching this more like a self-contained instrument in itself. This will be a full DIY build, including the case.

I’ve got a Per|Former Sequencer on my build list, which is looking like a fantastic 8 track sequencer with a ton of functionality.One big gap I have is some form of switch. I’ve been recommended the Doepfer A-152, although in the new case I’m looking at building a Nonlinearcicuits 1050 MixSeq, which can act like an 8 stage sequential switch, two 4 stage sequential switches, sequencer and bunch of other functions. Switches are fantastic for adding more variation to your sound, a basic example is you could have 8 different LFOs going into the switch feeding the frequency CV of a filter, and then have a trigger make the switch cycle through each LFO.

And what’s your dream piece of gear?

There’s achievable dream gear and non-achievable dream gear!

  1. Achievable – I’d love to build a Deckard’s Dream (clone of the Yamaha CS80), just because it would be interesting and rewarding DIY project.
  2. Pipedream – ARP2500 – I just love the idea of this thing. Only 100 made, rare as hen’s teeth, incredible sound. What a beast.
Do you have any tips that you’d offer to someone who’s looking to get started with modular synthesis? Are there any mistakes you made?

Get VCV Rack (currently free!) and mess around with it, see if you like it and go from there.

Before you buy anything, research your modules, watch videos on them, see if they will suit your purpose, how are they going to fit into your workflow? Don’t just buy things because that is what you buy when you get a modular system (Clouds, Braids, Maths – all amazing modules and I own all three! But they may not be for you) and don’t get into it just because it is in vogue at the moment because it might work for you. If you get the chance, have a play on a system to see if it clicks.

I wouldn’t say I’ve made any mistakes with my module purchases, although I’ve made a lot of errors in my DIY builds! Clean your boards when you’ve finished!

Lastly, share with us your top 3 tracks you’re feeling at the moment.

Anthony Linell – Vision of the Imminence

Anthony Linell is such a master of psychedelic minimalism – whenever I think a track of mine doesn’t have enough, I think back to his tunes – they are hypnotic in their repetition, yet change enough for them not to get boring, bleak in their overall mood yet vibrant in their tonal palette. I like to all it existential techno and it heavily influences the way I currently go about making music.

ASC – Gravity Distortion

ASC has been one of the constants in my musical life over the past 15 years – I’ve loved his music since I first heard his work on Covert Operations in around 2005. He is one of the most prolific (the guy has released at least one album a year for the past 10 years, not to mention the singles and EPs), consistent and pioneering “dance” music producers out there, and has been a key player in so many forward-thinking movements in 170 music including Autonomic and Grey Area. This tune is off his Astral Projection LP which came out last year on Horo.

Commodo – Yuliya

I burnt myself out on 140 music around the start of 2013. I’d focused so much energy on making that music for so long that it completely wrecked my relationship with it, I just couldn’t listen to it anymore. Commodo is one of the rare 140 artists that I still get excited about, he has this knack of creating detailed, technical works that have this organic quality to them – this track, in particular, is beautiful, especially the switch up in the middle of the track.