Grant Richter of modular synthesizer manufacturer Wiard has called for the module-buying public to become less conservative about the kind of front panel material used. “If the public could change their perception of how a synthesizer module must be constructed, we could have a renaisance unlike anything in the past. The single most expensive component in a synthesizer is the aluminum faceplate. There is only one source for turnkey faceplates in the US and they are obscenely expensive. I pay $70 each for 1200 series faceplates.”
Some folks like the blinkenlights, some like the telephone switchboard effect, and a lot of people are still caught in the moment of seeing their first Moog modular, with the wood and metal and knobs and sounds: even nerds could be hippies. Now of course many module purchasers or DIY makers are augmenting existing rigs, they need durability and design consistency in order to maintain their resale value, which may become an consideration as vintage moves into antique.
But for the rest of us, Grant is entirely right, but it is more than just the cost, it is also the time delay and logistics and also the lack of flexibility that causes users problems. Why is it that we currently have the several dozen different form factors for synthesizer modules?
I think there is another way to approach the issue that solves several other problems, especially for the new and DIY maker: adopt A4 (the paper size used outside North America and the Philippines) as the standard size for module front panels. 210 x 297 millimeters or 8.27 x 11.69 inches.
The first question that probably will pop up is Rick are you insane? A4 is about the same size as US letter paper, surely that is way too big? Plus it isn’t an even multiple of any of the current standard sizes…what gives?
Well, lets start off by redefining the problem. DIY people need to buy the expensive panels because they don’t have the skills or tools to cut and make decent panels themselves. But buying in a good-looking panel has a hidden cost: it makes it difficult to evolve and experiment with the module, in particular with anything that requires new knobs, lights or jacks: so new functionality has to go into a new module, which then needs a new panel. Plus if spend your cash on panels, you don’t have a brass razoo for other modules: there is a substitution cost. So Grant is right that the cost of panels is a disincentive to purchasing panels, but it is also a disincentive to incrementally evolving them.
(Update) And high panel costs are a disincentive to make larger panels and more integrated modules, too. It promotes atomism to bring down the price of single modules, but this increases the total cost to users because they have to get more modules for a given purpose. Think of mult modules: the price of these is insane: they have no PCB or circuitry to speak of….a larger panel size with space to space would provide them a free (or at least pre-paid) home.
So how would A4 panels help this? Well, for a start, lets get a view of what I am proposing in more detail, There is some history of larger size panels: the Roland 700 modular had 11″ panels, Serge systems came on 7″ by 11″ panels, and many Buchla modules are quite large. More to the point, the Oberheim SEM modules were 10″ wide.
Larger panels have several advantages. First, trivially, you can fit more into them. You can make different kinds of modules, and pre-patch them, to further save on production cost. Of course, some things need more space: drum machines, equalizers, and so on. I think there is room for a form factor larger than the current modules, but smaller than the 19″ rack size; if the size is accompanied with cost savings and construction benefits.
What started me on this was figuring out the design idea behind the ETI International 4600 synthesizer panel. It is a large wide panel, and I ultimately figured out that it was the same size as four A4 sheets side by side. (Perhaps the transfer for the panel was made on an A1 sheet cut lengthwise?) It is a pretty convenient size, and I have followed the 4600 design in adopting a 5×5 grid. Have one A4 module, and you have about the size of an Oberheim SEM; put two together, next to each other, and you have about the size of a VCS-3, and something that can fit into a 19″ rack with a couple of inches to spare; put three of them together and you have Minimoog width (but longer height); put four together and you have the size of the ETI 4600 or the never released EMS VCS-4, which will match a modern 4 or 5 octave keyboard controller. The Memorymoog is a pretty good example of a synth made from four sections wide enough for five knobs each (the middle two being continuous, and only four rows.)
So why A4? Well, the answer comes down to three things: product availability, development flexibility, and cost. Going to my local art supplies store today, I was struck by the number of products available ready cut as A4: perspex sheets, foam board, plastic, laser transparencies, and all kinds of paper in different finishes. Adopting A4 as the form factor for our DIY modules makes a huge range of possible panel solutions available and inspectable close to hand, and pre-cut.
Of course, we still need to make the holes, but we get a great benefit: because of the lower cost we can be more caviillier about adjusting the layout. We can start with a sparsely populated panel and add more holes as they are needed. Because we are using standard print sizes, we can just print off a new front panel face to suit the new components. When we are finally satisfied that no more changes are needed, then perhaps we could invest in an aluminium front panel, but one reason that metal panels are popular is because of long-term durability (they don’t get ragged) but adopting A4 gives another solution to the problem: it makes renovation easier because making a new set of panels before selling becomes cheaper and more trivial.
Now, of course, you may have access to a nice set of anodized aluminium sheets, along with cutters and drills and so on. But for the rest of us, I think this idea is worth thinking about, because it reduces the complexity of construction. You don’t need to trim anything, you can upgrade and trial designs, you can spend your money on components rather than panels: indeed, because the larger panel size may encourage you to incrementally upgrade modules, it may save you on the cost of sockets too. For example, rather than one small panel each for a VCO, CGS waveshaper, and synced slave VCO, which you habitually use together, you may instead put them all into a single panel, as a super VCO, and save sockets. Or you may put all your VCFs into a single panel with a pig fat switch to select between them.
Here’s the kind of thing I am thinking about: imagine a case wide enough to fit four A4 panels, with top and bottom wooden rails with velcro strips to hold the panels for easy removal, and braces for panel edges so they don’t buckle, if they are made from material that can snap or buckle. A panel might be made from, A4 foamboard covered with A4 vinyl and with an A4 decal applied and acriillc coated. Or it could be clear perspex with an undersheet with the label printed. Initially, it could just be plain printed paper glued to cardboard, even! The equipment cost would be a quarter inch leather punch for the knobs and jacks, and perhaps a 1/4 inch punch for smaller components. No fancy tooling, no precision cutting or bending. You would get something a little like the ETI 4600: this picture shows the kind of size: in particular the oscillators at the far left form five rows of five knobs which is exactly the kind of form factor for one panel.