Patchblocks are a unique modular synthesis system that combine real touch control with online editing. Through a visual patch editor, they create an endless foundation that anyone interested in synthesis can enjoy. Connecting like physical puzzle pieces, these individual modules can be linked together, each of them able to send audio and receive it, triggered by two small buttons and two knobs. Available in stylish acrylic casing in different colours or with wooden top and bottom plates, the visible circuitry make these mini synths attractive indeed, but it’s once you start digging deeper into creating your own patches that you truly can expose the power of the design from Sebastian Heinz’ years of research and development.
The actual sounds that you’re able to produce from these miniature monsters are incredible, and should be the reason you end up making the purchase (especially with the cost at under $70 per Patchblock). Dreamy pads, full bass sounds, and rich leads are easily created with essentially a blank canvas for you to design your own sounds on. The editor looks and acts like an actual modular synthesizer so you’ll learn quite a bit as you go about the foundations of electronic music, and you can easily download premade patches and upload them to the Patchblocks to try out community sourced sounds, which are impressive to say the least. In the near future, there will be a whole pack of presets to make it easier to access Patchblocks sounds, and beginning next month they will be available for sale in the US through Pittsburgh Modular, in addition to the Patchblocks website
CUT TO THE CHASE
The good: Because they’re linkable with each other and customized in the online editor, you get the creative control to design your own setup, as simple or complex as you want it.
The bad: It might take some time learning how to use computer editor to make your own patches (sounds), but it’s easy enough to use the massive library that the community is constantly adding to.
The deal breaker: Endless sound possibilities via the patch editor and a stylish, minimal design make the Patchblocks an instant hit with the mini synth world. Just browsing through some user designed patches exposes some of the true power of the hardware/software.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Ultimately, what makes the Patchblocks so significant is quality of the sounds you’re able to produce, generated from 10-bit audio and patched together visually in a Max/Pd style editor. After unboxing the Patchblock from the glossy black box there’s a chance the battery needs a recharge via the mini-usb, but after a quick reset you can plug in and hear the stock patches (they sent an acid bassline combined with a drumloop generator on one, and a dubstep wobble on the other), or open up the editor and load up one of your own. There’s also a growing library of user created patches that range across all genres to get your excitement building. Admittedly the editor will take some getting used to as the modular synthesis ideas that are present are realistic emulations of actual analog hardware, meaning you’ll build a solid foundation of knowledge on creating sounds that can be translated to other hardware or software.
Within the online editor, on the left side you select effects and basics like attack-decay-sustain-release, waveform options like sine, saw, triangle, and sequencing options that offer note pitch selection in another window on the right side of the editor. At the bottom right corner is the emulator window that shows two basic columns that represent the potentiometers (knobs) on the Patchblock, and two check boxes that represent the buttons. You can test the sounds that you create before loading them up onto the machine which can then be taken and used by itself or as part of a bigger setup, with audio in and out capabilities and direct connection to matching Patchblocks that fit together like LEGO. Word on the street is that Heinz is developing a MIDI unit to pair up with the system that will allow them to communicate with other MIDI devices. They even debuted a prototype module for this recently and we'll make sure to keep you updated.
The possibilities are endless with Patchblocks, and it’s entirely up to you to decide how complex or simple you want the patch to be. You can control the note pitch directly in the editor or assign the buttons and knobs the parameters so you can control them live. While you are limited to two buttons and two knobs, this forces you to think hard about what you actually want to manipulate with the sound. If you don’t know much about synthesis you can easily experiment with modules and see what works, or follow the great instructional videos that Patchblocks have posted. Essentially you just drag and drop your desired workflow and create a patch customized to your own sound. If LFO modulation is a key part of the sound, you might want to map one of the knobs on the hardware unit to affect that parameter, or likewise if the filter cutoff becomes a defining factor of the sound, you will likely map one of the two knobs to control that, and because you control every detail within the editor, you can determine whether it’s low, high, or band pass for example.
We can talk about Patchblocks endlessly but the best way to get a taste of the product before you make the purchase is to listen to some examples. Replicating vintage synths of the 80’s and ranging up to heavy leads of today’s electronic music sound you can hear the variety that’s available to you at the click of a mouse and turn of a knob below. The third one features drums from Korg Volca Beats as well but the main sounds are from Patchblocks.