Eurorack and the cult of slenderness

I was talking with Trevor Pinch last Saturday at the Moog celebration at Cornell; I told him I make Eurorack modules and his immediate response was, “The trouble with Eurorack is, the knobs are too small.” Which is hardly a novel observation, of course, and I immediately agreed. Too small, and too close together, too often.

There’s nothing about Eurorack that requires small knobs on tight centers. Module heights are constrained to 3U but they can be as wide as you like. You do find large knobs sometimes. Like the glorious octave selector on the Befaco Even VCO:

But they’re the exception. For a lot of people in the Eurorack community, slim is in. Bring out a 12HP module and they’ll complain. Squeeze it down to 6HP and they’ll cheer. There’s a whole, successful company devoted to making only 2HP modules. There aren’t any I’m aware of that specialize in 10+HP.

Of course there are benefits to this kind of tight design: You can fit more synth into a smaller volume, which works to the advantage of both those whose living situation is constrained and those who need to haul a synth around to gigs. But it definitely comes at a price.

Or a couple of prices. One is aesthetic. If you regard a synth as nothing more than a tool for making music then maybe you don’t care what it looks like. But for those who do care, Eurorack’s small modules with small knobs tend to create an uninspiring look, unless maybe you have a couple hundred modules. Ask yourself if you can imagine Keith Emerson up on stage sitting in front of a Eurorack. I can’t either.

The other price is more practical. Take a look at the AI Synthesis A002 Mixer for instance:

The upper three knobs are Davies 1900H style, 12.7 mm diameter, on a spacing of about 20 mm. Trying to bring two adjacent channels from zero to maximum simultaneously (or worse yet, one from zero to max and the other from max to zero) is near impossible; your hands are on top of one another, fingers of one colliding with fingers of the other.

That’s just one of several examples in my small system alone. The 2HP Żłob MiniAtt has two “knobs” that really are pot shafts in black with white pointers. The same module has two toggle switches about 10 mm apart. The PMFoundations Sample and Hold has four jacks, two pots, and an LED in a single column on a 4HP panel, on about 15 mm centers; the two knobs have 1900H style knobs that only just miss rubbing against each other. The NLC Timbre has two knobs next to one another on 20 mm centers, above a 40 mm by 40 mm expanse of blank panel. They all present an ergonomic challenge to the player.

When you squeeze modules down and stuff many of them in a case, potential versatility benefits, but playability suffers. Many Eurorack users seem to glory in the former, while dismissing or ignoring the latter.

It’s starting to bother me. While I don’t have a lot of space for a huge system, I’m not living in a sardine tin either, and I’m not gigging. I could stand to have more panel space per module.

My first design for the MFOS filter would have resulted in five jacks and two pots stacked in a single column, probably 4HP wide — geometry similar to the Sample and Hold. But I changed my mind, and redesigned the filter to 12HP with relatively large, maybe about 25 mm diameter knobs for cutoff and resonance. And I was able to add three more knobs for CV attenuation. I probably could’ve squeezed it down to 10HP without too much trouble, but what for?

The previously mentioned Kosmo format is in part a reaction against the parsimonious aesthetic of Eurorack. “Big knobs, big jacks” is the rallying cry. Now of course there is more to playability and attractiveness than that, and I for one am not impressed with either the playability or the attractiveness of LMNC’s panel labeling aesthetic and choice of knob design. But I wholeheartedly approve of getting synth lovers thinking about alternatives to a flawed dominant paradigm.

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