So here we are at the Pittsburgh Modular Hybrid Intelligence (aka System 90) modular synth review. This review is the culmination of about a 18 months of developing a good repoirte with Richard Nicol, founder of Pittsburgh Modular. Not to mention the months that I’ve actually had possession of the fabulous Pittsburgh Modular Hybrid Intelligence modular system. Back in 2013, Rich and I had a chance to chop it up at Winter NAMM 2013 and again during Winter NAMM 2014. During that time, we’ve watched Richard build a powerhouse of a brand module by module and system by system. Now, we’ve finally been able to harness the power of one of their prebuilt systems in our very own beat making workflow and context.
My initial goal as an admitted newb to modular synthesis was to incorporate modular synthesis into my boom bap/synth hop – beat making – rig and hopefully inspire a few beatmakers to do the same. But when I got this package on my doorstep, shortly after Sweetwater’s 2014 Gear Festival, I unpacked it and realized… uh-oh what to do now?!
The System 90 is gorgeous. It comes in this really unassuming sort of package with it’s brushed metal faces, seriously old school (as in 50’s and 60’s) Punchlabel fonts that label each module and it has maple wood ends. The casing is solidly built metal. So much so that I’d say, you can’t really do much damage at all to the thing. It’s made like a tank quite frankly.
The knobs are equally reminiscent of something out of the 60’s and would be thought of back then as state of the art sort of stuff. It’s the sort of retro modern design that screams analog and science. Still the System 90 brings along with it the digital DNA Symbiotic Waves Module for the retro ride into the future.
So, if you are a new to modular synthesis, like myself admittedly, don’t be afraid of it. What’s very cool about this Pittsburgh Modular Hybrid Intelligence (aka System 90) is the fact that Pittsburgh Modular is a company that makes devices that can give you your wings. That is if you are new to modular a synthesis. Otherwise, if you are veteran modular type of dude, their modules can definitely add some really dope colors to your pallet.
In this particular system the system 90 aka hybrid intelligence (am I saying that enough?), the charm is all in the fact that it’s not only an analog synth with it’s “Waveforms” module, but it also has the aforementioned “DNA Symbiotic Waves” digital module. This makes for one hell of a versatile system. Use any of the common analog waves that you are surely familiar with or blend the digital voices in after dialing in just the right amount of digital goodness and crunchy 8 bit undertones. Or you can totally shred the tone with all sorts of nasty but purposeful digital artifacts.
So let’s dig into the voices of the Hybrid Intelligence (aka System 90) modular synth…
DNA Symbiotic Waves Module
“A powerful 9-bit digital oscillator and waveform processor”, the digital module is all knobby and fun with it’s “dual oscillator system” and “comprehensive waveform processing and modulation section”. The dual oscillators allow fro some pretty wide ranging blendy-mixy-matchy and sometimes opposing voicing. It has two wave outputs, wave one and wave two. You also have a Processor Mix Output. This bad boy is capable of infinite combinations of cool 9 bit crunchy digital sounds. But perhaps more surprisingly is its ability to make cool smooth pads and leads.
controls included on the DNA Symbiotic Waves Module
- Frequency Control Knob – Adjusts the center frequency.
- Fine Tune Control knob – Fine tune frequency adjustment.
- Wave 2 Detune Knob – Adjusts the pitch of wave 2 relative to wave 1. Range is 0 to +1 octave.
- Wave 1 Select Knob – 16 step waveform selector.
- Wave 2 Select Knob – 16 step waveform selector.
- Balance Control Knob – Adjust the processor output balance between wave 1 and wave 2.
- Balance CV Attenuator Knob – Balance CV input attenuator
- Processor Selector Knob – 16 step processing mode selector.
- Processor Controller Knob – Processor mode specific function controller knob.
- Processor Controller CV Attenuator Knob – Processor controller CV input attenuator.
Inputs of the DNA Symbiotic Waves Module
- 1 V/O Input – One volt per octave CV input.
- Balance CV Input – Balance CV Input
- Control CV Input – Processor control CV input.
- Wave 1 Output –: Preprocessor waveform output of Wave 1.
- Wave 2 Output – Preprocessor waveform output of Wave 2.
- Processor Mix Output – Post processor mix output.
Some of you may have seen the video that I did where I kind of got into a little bit of a demo of the System 90. The demo shows how you can take the LFO and drop into the balance CV of the DNA symbiotic waves module. What that does is it allows you to slowly or quickly (depending on what speed the LFO is set to) morph between both digital waves so you can set one wave on the DNA symbiotic waves to a particular wave and set the other to something as tonally different as you like, then let the LFO morph and flow the two in and out of one another thus creating an entirely new texture for your beat making pleasure. These are the types of tricks and experimental cool situations you can get yourself into with this system and with modular synthesis in general.
On the analog side of the System 90, the Waveforms module houses the typical waveforms that one would expect from any synth with a few extras. It has quite a few waves as a matter of fact. There is the sine, triangle, blade, saw,pulse and the sub waves outputs. These waves can be output as clean and pure as one wave or in combinations of several waves into the mixer or any number of other destinations. Perhaps most impressive about this module is that it “doubles as a voltage controlled LFO” thanks to the frequency range which starts as low as 7 seconds per cycle.
Controls on the Waveforms module include
- Frequency Control – Course frequency setting.
- Fine Tune Control – Fine tune frequency setting.
- Pulse Width CV Attenuator – Controls the amount of CV used to adjust the pulse width of the pulse wave.
- Pulse Width Control – Manually controls the pulse width of the pulse wave.
- FM CV Attenuator Control and Input – Frequency modulation CV input and attenuation control.
- FM Type – Switches FM response type between linear and exponential.
- Blade CV Attenuator Control and Input – Blade wave Y-axis modulation CV input and attenuation control.
Inputs on the Waveforms module include
- 1v/o Input – CV input used to track the oscillator at 1 volt per octave.
- Reset Input – CV Input used to hard reset the Oscillator on the falling edge of the incoming waveform.
- Blade Input – CV or audio rate input used to modulate the blade wave creating a ring mod type effect.
- PWM Input – Pulse width modulation CV input. Affects the pulse width of the pulse wave.
- Sub Output – Square wave sub oscillator output. Sub Oscillator is 1 lower than the oscillator core.
- Sine Output – Sine wave output.
- Triangle Output – Triangle wave output.
- Blade Output – Blade wave output.
- Saw Output – Saw wave output.
- Pulse Output – Pulse wave output.
It’s a very versatile analog module. The potential is vast. You can make almost any sort of sound you want to make with that variety between and in combination of the two, digital module and the waveforms module. But those are only the voices/wave forms.
The Modules are comprised of the following;
- The Midi2 converts standard midi note messages into the analog control voltages used by modular synthesizers.
- DNA Symbiotic Waves Module is described as A powerful 9-bit digital oscillator and waveform processor
- Waveforms Module is described as A wide range, multiple waveform generator. The Waveforms oscillator has a frequency range starting as low as 7 seconds per cycle, allowing it to double as a voltage controlled LFO.
- LFO2 Module is described as A dual low frequency oscillator module. It uses two different types of low frequency oscillator circuits to provide a variety of CV and audio rate modulation options.
- Toolbox Module is described as Multi-purpose slew, noise, sample & hold, and voltage inverter module
- Mix Multi Module is described as “a multi-function module. The top section is a flexible, low-noise three channel mixer and/or attenuator for audio and CV that can be used in several ways. The bottom section contains 2 sets of passive multiples.”
- The LPG (los pass gate) Module is described as The lopass gate module is a multi-mode filter/VCA combo module split into Lopass gate, filter, and VCA modes.
- Envelope x2 module is described as “The Envelope is a complex multi-stage envelope generator with voltage controllable rise and fall. Using the sustain switch to toggle between modes, the Envelope functions as either a 2 stage attack-decay envelope or a 3 stage attack-sustain-release envelope”
- Dual VCA module is described as The Dual Index is a dual linear voltage controlled amplifier (VCA) and a two channel voltage controlled mixer.
- Outs module is described as A simple way to get sound out of the Foundation. Outs is a dual independent output module featuring a stereo 1/4″ headphone amplifier output and dual mono 1/4″ line level outputs.
Now given all of that you have at your disposal, this monster of a beast of a system built on that euro rack modular format can literally take you in any direction.that you can dream up. I’m telling you you can go to tones that are high and shrilly, create synth effects and crazy spacey 9bit noises or you can bring it right back down to earth to get nice lush pads (mono of course) and deep Moog-ish basses that shake and rattled the room. As a matter fact I shared so many 15 second videos of this a couple months ago that I know for fact there’s someone that have gone out and bought their own Pittsburgh Modular system. That’s true… all because of the bass that the system 90 put out of its unassuming package. Personally one of the best moments was when first turned the System 90 on and thought to myself, “Now what?!” Well, simple enough… I ran an analog wave out to the mixer and out to the filter then to the output module. There, I was able to pull together a quick patch that instantly output rich huge tones within minutes of unpacking the synth. The leads that I put out through a little delay and a little reverb showed me an impressive, expressive and powerful synth. I quickly realized that this little desktop modular system is a versatile and wide reaching monster. I thought to myself, “You’ll never get enough of what you can do with this thing I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning.” and therein lies the gateway to modular addiction. Yes my friends, the System 90 aka hybrid Intelligence is the gateway drug to modular addiction.
#transformers break A video posted by BboyTechReport (@bboytechreport) on
My overall thoughts of the system 90 is, as I said before, it’s a beast. Even if you don’t know much about modular synthesis, this is the type of system that will allow you to take it out the box plug in a few patch cables, experiment and began to get sounds out of it straight away. I’ve used it with the Arturia Beatstep to create all sorts of patterns. My workflow finds me using this Beatstep, System 90 and MPC combo to create and resample wild synth patterns to chop and re-sequence in a rather experimental style. I’ve used it with keyboard controllers to play ill bass lines.
I’ve done super experimental shrilly echo laced sounds and effects with it. I’ve brought it down to earth and layered it’s tones to create cool pads inside of the MPC as keygroups. It’s worth noting that this piece can only be limited by your own imagination. Although it is a mono synth you can layer tones creatively. Be as creative as you might want to be. The truth is that the System 90 has been my best friend with the MPC and I know any beatmaker with a bit of willingness to dig in can turn his/her creativity upside down pretty quickly with this ill swiss army knife of a synth.
So to all my beat making counter parts, particularly the boom-gap cats, modular synthesis can open up a whole new world. So obviously, I think that one of the best places that you can start in modular synthesis is with one of Pittsburgh modular’s many prebuilt systems. Pittsburgh Modular puts together a system that allows you to remove yourself from the mad world of super techie modular synthesis.
And since we are on the subject of building your own Modular versus buying a prebuilt system…. I’ve heard the argument that a prebuilt modular is somehow less fun than building a modular system module by module and possibly component by component. While I am certainly not against building your system from scratch and i totally understand that building a system may have its perks, I do think there is great merit in prebuilt modulars. To speak to the prebuilt modular thing… I think it’s a great entry point for those that may be considering diving into modular synthesis but may not be really ready for the adventure of picking and choosing modules to build the perfect modular system. A “pre-built” takes the guess work out and allows you to get right down to enjoying the synth. The fact is, not everyone that wants a modular wants the portion about figuring out the build. That’s fun for some , but maybe not so much for others. My thought is, enjoying modulars and enjoying building modulars are not mutually exclusive.
Doo doot doo doot Doo doot doo doot Doo doot doo doot d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d- splash A video posted by BboyTechReport (@bboytechreport) on
Ultimately and in conclusion, I must say that the sound of the Pittsburgh Modular System 90 is just so rich, thick and beautiful that it can be whatever you want it to be, within reason of course. But it can also give you tones that you never dreamed of creating. The sound designer and experimenter within you will be pleased indeed. From rich bass tones to shrill wildness to absolutely wild digital mess. From 9-bit crunch to clean tones yet still very thick and charming tones can be achieved. If you are wanting to break out of the norm and experience something new in your betaking and boom-hap workflow modular synthesis is the way forward. However, if you are not so handy with a soldering iron and you don’t want to dig in right away to the seemingly millions and millions of modules that might be out there all you need to know is a company like Pittsburgh Modular and a system like the System 90. Together with your MPC, Maschine, DAW and/or controllers you could be on your way to a entirely new world. You will certainly be leagues ahead of all your buddies because there is no software that touches a system like this. Point blank… Period!
The System 90 – Hybrid intelligence is available for purchase from Pittsburgh Modular’s website. The System 90 will cost you a bit of a buck at $1699, but I’ll go out on a limb to say that its well worth it and if that is indeed within your range, you will not regret it.