Erica Synths – the Finest Little Synth Company You Never Heard Of
Erica Synths is creating waves, from a perhaps unlikely location in Latvia. MARK JENKINS investigates some of the company’s greatest products…
Latvia may seem an unlikely location for one of the world’s most prolific synth manufacturers, but Erica Synths has been located there since the company’s foundation and these days offers some incredibly sophisticated electronic music products, as well as some at around entry level or in kit form for those just getting into Eurorack systems.
How come the company isn’t better known? In fact the Erica Synths products aren’t difficult to get hold of, with distribution outlets in the USA, UK, and elsewhere as well as direct sales available. So even during these long lockdown periods the company’s instruments have become progressively better appreciated.
The company runs artist residencies and live performances in a series called The Garage, and the website includes interviews with many users of the company’s synth products. ES staff including Eliza Aboltina and Girts Ozolins travel around the world interviewing names such as Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore, the Berlin-based Jako Jako who divides her time between giving live performances and working in the SchneidersLaden modular shop, legendary French composer Jean Michel Jarre and many others.
As Jarre comments, “Erica Synths reminds me of the beginnings of electronic music – when a small bunch of people in their garage or salon started to create the dream concept to make something different, with a distinctive approach.”
The company itself, with regular backing from Latvia’s business development agencies, started out making Eurorack modules and gradually modified some of these designs to act as stand-alone instruments.
One notable line was the Pico modules – usually in a mere 3HP width, so capable of squeezing a tremendous number of modules and sonic elements into a physically very small system. The Pico was rapidly made available as a stand-alone non-modular system in its own powered desktop housing.
Above Pico in size is the Black range of Eurorack modules, in more common 8 or 10HP or larger unit sizes making up medium sized Eurorack systems that could find a place in any stage or studio setup.
Erica Synths does offer some other stand-alone instruments, including one in the spirit of Roland’s Bassline monophonic synth (but with a little more dirt in its sound).
However, these are mostly very compact, so it was something of a surprise then when the company launched Syntrx, a relatively large stand-alone synthesizer having little in common with their earlier Eurorack format modules. In fact Syntrx is a re-imagining of the old EMS VCS3 or Synthi A design, a large, squarish desktop sized system offering three very flexible audio oscillators and a pin matrix system of patching modules together.
Except the Syntrx doesn’t need any pins, and it doesn’t restrict itself to classic analog design, offering MIDI as well as other more modern facilities – though it does retain a good old analog spring reverb inside.
The matrix, which on the VCS3 and Synthi A had to be patched with conductive pins, is on the Syntrx a virtual one, with each junction programmed and indicated by an LED, and the whole setup saveable into a memory. This takes away one of the huge restrictions of the original EMS system, making it possible to jump from one sound setup to another completely different one in moments – though the Syntrx design does leave plenty for sound programmers to do also, since the knob positions for each matrix patch are not saved.
Since many sound elements of the VCS3 style design do multiple duties – for instance an oscillator can be producing an audio signal, or running slowly to create modulation effects – the actual knob positions will utterly change the sound of a patch, even when the pin connections have been pre-defined.
Another eccentricity of the Syntrx, turned into something of a benefit, is that the built-in reverb uses a genuine mechanical spring line, and the built-in speakers can interfere with this crazily. So you can set up all sorts of upredictable feedback effects, if that’s your thing – though of course you can avoid all this by not turning up the internal speakers.
Like the original EMS synths, the Syntrx can make weird noises. Oscillators that are creating audio can also provide modulation at the same time, but get modulated by another oscillator so their modulation speed is modulated…if you see what I mean.
A Ring Modulator circuit further bends oscillator sounds, creating mathematically but not musically related pitches that tend to produce clanging, chiming and metallic effects. The instrument can more or less run itself, creating endless pseudo-random soundscapes, and the list of classic users of the original EMS instruments is endless – Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Brian Eno with Roxy Music, and many more including Peter Bardens with Camel, who did try to get instrumental melodies out of the synth on the band’s first album.
In that instance the EMS was soon dropped in favor of a MiniMoog, a much more melodic and controllable instrument. In the case of the Syntrx, though, the instrument can (if you wish) be much more predictable and controllable, so the concept of tuning up the oscillators and playing strong melodic sounds from a MIDI keyboard or computer is vastly more achievable.
Peter Zinovieff, the mastermind behind the EMS range, was able to try and approve the Syntrx shortly before his recent passing. The Syntrx does offer many other original EMS features, including the multi-turn, high precision Vernier dials used to set oscillator pitch, but these have proven the instrument’s downfall since they have become unavailable during the lockdown period.
So the last of the Syntrx run is now available from stockists or direct from Erica Synths – a fantastic opportunity to obtain a very distinctive instrument that could make you the envy of many other players and studios.
Erica Synths meanwhile forges ahead offering instruments in Eurorack and many other areas. The Black System Eurorack modules can be assembled into a System III based on one digital waveform oscillator and two analog oscillators. This is a 2-row system at €3800 plus taxes and shipping from Latvia, and an optional accessory is a large form fitting backpack for easy transport.
At around the same size and price, the Techno System, is more closely oriented towards creating rhythmic music, with drum modules pre-patched internally to a sequencer. The Black series sequencer itself is extremely powerful and firmware updateable using an SD card, with flexible CV/Gate and MIDI outputs. It has a huge number of options for quantizing, ratcheting, and time correcting output patterns (whereas many other sequencers need quantizer, ratcheting, and other options added).
Brand new for January 2022 is the “MKI x ES.EDU” system of kit-built Eurorack modules designed by Moritz Klein and Erica Synths in collaboration. The system will feature all the basics – an oscillator, VCA, VCF, mixer, sequencer, and more, at around €60 per module – allowing new enthusiasts to build their own modules with a full understanding of the design principles involved. Modules will appear every month or two and have fully finished faceplates.
Also new is the K-Phaser, a Eurorack module designed “as a tribute to the German electronic music pioneers.” When designers talk about the classic Krautrock phaser they’re usually referring to the Schult Compact Phasing A (used by, but no relation to, Klaus Schulze and many others) however the ES design adds new facilities such as a Filter Spread setting that widens the output sound.
In total ES is running around half a dozen series of modules. Pico we’ve mentioned, the concept being to squeeze flexible sounds into a compact space, while the more conventional size Black series now comprises more than 30 modules, most featuring a single oversized knob for rapid control of its most prominent feature.
The Fusion series includes more than half a dozen modules all featuring vacuum tube designs for a warm, cleanly overdriving sound, a great way to introduce warm distortion into your sound design. Meanwhile, the DIY Series is inspired by the Russian Polivoks synth designs, including a complete synth voice and a MIDI input module, while the Graphic Series – currently only comprising the Graphic VCO – offers a tiny LCD display on the module, in the case of the GVCO to help facilitate complex waveform editing.
The Drum Series comprises 15 modules – which can all be bought together as a system – for creating percussion patterns, offering individual modules for bass drum, snare, clap, cymbals, and so on, together with a mixer and effects.
Erica Synths also offers a Basic Series of modules, but there’s nothing very basic about them, though they could all be described as utility modules. One is a MatrixPatcher – taking the programmable matrix system from the Syntrx and making it available as part of any Eurorack system – while another is a MIDI-to-Clock module with all sorts of division and multiplication options.
Finally, the Perkons (Thunder) HD-01 is just about reaching the market. It’s a 4-voice sequencing drum machine with variable built-in analog and digital sounds, offering individual trigger inputs and selling at around $2000 (US dollars price).
While the Erica Synths products are highly versatile, there’s something a little unusual and far from run-of-the-mill about many of them, maybe offering an opportunity to make your own mark with sounds and techniques that have something of the unexpected about them. A visit to the company website and maybe a tryout of some instruments at your local stockist might take you into previously unimagined sonic territory.