Happy New Year to synthesists everywhere! Looking back at the last year, I see that for a while I've been focusing almost exclusively on gear. That was not really my intent. I'll let you in on a little secret: One of the reasons I created this blog was to use it, in a sense, as my own notebook; a lot of the things that I post are things that I want to be able to refer back to myself. For instance, since I did the detailed description of the MOTM-650 MIDI-to-CV interface back in 2010, I've referred back to it several times when I needed to sort out some parameter or other.
However, I'm not doing this just for myself. If I was, I'd just keep a notes file on my computer, and not bother with a blog. My New Year's resolution, in regard to Sequence 15, is to share thoughts of all sorts with regard to synthesis and electronic music. Just blogging about gear is too limiting, and accounts for the dearth of posts.
So here goes... In the ongoing discussion about the differences in the user community between modular synth performers who prefer the Eurorack format, and the performers who prefer the "5U" formats (MOTM, Dotcom, and Modcan-A), one thing that's often debated is the style of panel graphics commonly seen on Eurorack modules, versus the usual style of 5U modules. Let's compare: Here is a (rather murky) photo of my Encore Universal Event Generator:
By comparison, here, from Analogue Haven's Web site, is a photo of the Makenoise Maths:
The Encore UEG clearly maintains the tradition of the vintage Moog modulars: white graphics on a flat back background, and controls in neat rows and columns. (Further, it follows the MOTM format convention of putting the I/O jacks at the bottom, although it doesn't really conform to the whole MOTM standard grid due to the large number of knobs.) All the controls and jacks are labeled in a clean font, and the panel has index marks for the knobs. Line graphics are used to indicate associations between controls. Most MOTM, Dotcom, and Modcan-A format modules follow this pattern; in the world of 5U, Modcan's B-series modules (which are MOTM format) are considered a bit radical for having black graphics on a white background. There have been a few other makers of large-format panels who have used colored text and line graphics, but even they tend to stick to the black background and standard fonts.
Now let's compare with the Maths. White background with a red border around the edge of the panel. (And that's considered conservative in Euro-land.) Zig-zaggy graphics that show the flow of signal through the module. There's four input jacks; they are at the top of the module, and you have to read the manual to realize that they are the four jacks pointed at by the small arrows. Knobs and jacks scattered hither and yon, although the panel is symmetrical. (It has two processing channels; the two outside ones do basically the same thing, and the same goes for the two inside ones.) Functions of some of the jacks are indicated only by the signal flow graphics. You have to look rather closely to see the little math operator symbols that label some of the controls. The knobs don't have any indexing, and there are two illuminated pushbutton switches whose purpose is not indicated at all. And I don't know where the hell Makenoise came up with that font; maybe they made it themselves.
If that sounds like I'm ragging on Makenoise, I'm not intending to be. If you go to Makenoise's Web site and look through the descriptions of their modules, you realize that Makenoise has its way of doing things, and once you've studied it and gotten into that groove, most of those panel markings make intuitive sense. Where you start to run into problems in Euro-land is when you realize that the Makenoise way of doing things is not the same as the Harvestman way of doing things, which is not the same as the WMD way of doing things, etc.
Euro users put up with this, in part because it looks cool. But I think there is also more of an aesthetic in the Euro world of being more willing to patch something up, turn some knobs, and see what happens, where in the 5U world, users tend to want things to be more precise (or "anal" if you prefer). This is just a general statement based on anecdotal data; it certainly doesn't apply universally. However, I do note that there are a few small makers in the Euro world who are willing to silkscreen something on a panel that has nothing to do with a panel's function, or just leave a panel blank; almost no one in the 5U world would ever do that. I do note that even in Euro land there has been a bit of a reaction to some of the more excessive panel designs. Pittsburgh Modular makes a wry comment on it with their 1960s-embossed-label aesthetic.
Other aspects of small vs. large format have been discussed to death already: 5U takes up a lot more space; Euro/Frac knobs are too small for large fingers, 5U panels cost more to make, 3.5mm jacks break off too easily, etc. However, I think there's one other, very practical concern. It's been noted that 5U users tend to be, on average, older than Euro users. Here's the other reason us 5U guys like things nice and clean: when we look at something like the Maths panel above, we can't see the panel! Our eyes aren't as good as they used to be. If we had a Maths, we'd have to get a magnifying glass out every time we wanted to use it. Panels like that give us headaches. We have to stick with nice high-contrast panels with clean labeling that we can see.
And besides, we like the laboratory-test-equipment aesthetic. Our moms all say it reminds them of their father's ham radio gear.