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Behind the Curtain with Crew Called Self

Out now is a new album from Crew Called Self called Modular on the Sea. In today’s post, Jim Petty goes into the details of how this album came together.

Modular on the Sea is comprised of instrumental, modular synth interpretations of sea shanties. This album started as a joke. I have been working as a sound designer for Broadway shows aboard cruise ships. I bring my portable modular rack, the carbon fiber travel case by Erica Synths, with me so I can jam during downtime. Due to COVID restrictions, we were having to quarantine for 10 days aboard the ship before beginning rehearsals so… lots of downtime. I was drinking alone in my cabin, noodling around, and chatting with my buddy Steven, whom you know from Lechuga Caliente, and we started joking about me being a drunken sailor and singing shanties. I decided to make a version of The Drunken Sailor with the modular. I had so much fun doing it I that kept going with the others.

Making sounds at sea. Photo by Jim Petty

Sea shanties are very simple tunes that are easy to sing along with whilst doing repetitive, hard labor on a ship to pass the time. So they are pretty easy to program which was a great exercise. In this case I’m using the Metron/Voltera combo from WMD for all trigger/gate and CV sequencing. It’s rather tedious to translate sheet music to modular but I got the hang of it pretty quickly with this set up and enjoyed the process.

I found that modulating the unique voices in my rack turned these simple melodies into something really quite interesting. For the lead I’m using the Dixie 2+ VCO by Intellijel which has multiple waveform outs. I send that into Rabid Elephant’s fantastic dual LPG module, Natural Gate, which has this nice plucky sound with variable decay. From there I go  to Tip Top Audio’s Forbidden Planet VCF with a high resonance, often to the point of self resonance. Modulating the cutoff filter with Pamela’s New Workout made for some really interesting, random, resonant swirls. The filter also has multiple inputs so I’d often patch the square wave out of Dixie, with subtle pulse-width modulation, into one channel of Natural Gate and into the band pass of the filter, and the Sub out into the other channel into the high pass, with a longer decay. This allows me to accent certain notes with a lower octave. All that goes into Make Noise’s glorious Mimeophon module for panned stereo delay and reverb. 

The modulated bass sounds come from the Tonestar 8104, which is a replica of an ARP 2600 with a Roland Juno/Jupiter style filter in Eurorack format. There’s internal LFO modulation, with ADSR envelope, of both cutoff filter and PWM of the square wave. I also love this module for leads that really sing quite beautifully. In those instances the Basimus Iteritas Alter, by Noise Engineering, takes over bass line duties when it would otherwise be doing various percussion voices.

Another standout module in this rack is the SYO.5 by Michigan Synth Works. This is a single channel replica of a Pearl Syncussion which was an incredible drum synthesizer from the 70’s. I like to use it for warbled percussion fills.

Travel mode. Photo by Jim Petty

I gotta have drums of course and the Quad Drum Voice by VPME fills this role in my rack along with a 2hp Hats module and WMD’s metallic percussion synth module, Crucible.
Everything gets mixed with the awesome character mixer, Vortices, by Steady State Fate. This is such a powerful stereo/mono mixer with an incredibly small footprint that’s perfect for a travel case. 

Sometimes you just have to work within your limitations and in this case I didn’t really have the ability to make chords. So, If the score required a chord I did my best to add additional notes with 2hp Pluck and/or BIA. I am planning to address this by swapping something out to install a second Voltera and Acid Rain’s Chainsaw, a supersaw VCO that outputs triads. It will make for far more tedious programming but I think it will pay off.

While I was working on this album my friend, and incredibly talented artist, Frank Lawson posted this illustration he did of a ghost pirate. It immediately resonated with what I was doing so I reached out to him with a concept for the album cover and he absolutely nailed it.
I had such a great time making these tracks and was really pleased with the results I was able to get from this 6u, 104hp travel case. I am currently back out to sea and working on a second volume of shanties and folk songs. I hope you find as much enjoyment listening to these songs, and hopefully singing along, as I had in creating them.

Jim Petty (aka Crew Called Self)