Erica Synths Pico System 1 Review – Pint-sized powerhouse

The Pico System 1 from Erica Synths is probably the smallest fully formed Eurorack modular you can find. Dave Gale shrinks down to Lilliputian size to take a look…

pico system 1

Details
Manufacturer Erica Synths
Price €1,210
Contact Erica Synths
info@ericasynths.lv
Web www.ericasynths.lv

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One of the criticisms levelled at Eurorack, as a concept, is that it can be quite difficult to get started. You need to think about cases, power, and selecting your first modules so that you have everything you need to make a noise. Some companies have bought out nice solutions but for larger systems, the price can be exorbitant; while smaller ‘voice channel’ designs can sometimes leave you wanting.

Latvian synth guru Erica Synths now has an answer, offering a fully fledged Eurorack system in a pint-sized 42HP case for around £1,000. This offers a bit of a saving on the cost of the modules purchased individually, so it could be considered a bargain. But can big sounds come from small boxes?

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As many of us already know, Eurorack is based on the old standard of 3U in height, with width handled in HP (horizontal pitch). Most modules tend to be in excess of 6 or 8HP, with larger modules taking up considerably more space, which can be useful if you have numerous pots and controls to handle. Erica has kept with this form, working very much within the Eurorack tolerances, but each module is a mere 3HP, just 14mm wide. In fact, it’s so slim, you have to question the keyhole surgery that must have taken place to make these modules. The tradeoff is a very small footprint for a full modular. The case itself offers a slight angle towards the user, with some lovely light wood-end cheeks finishing off the aesthetic. The included power supply plugs into the rear, with the On/Off switch located next door.

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Inside the actual modular, we have 14 modules, offering 12 different functions, as there are two VCOs and two drum modules. So the lineup, all drawn from Erica’s Pico range, consists of: Seq Step Sequencer; 2x VCOs; VCF1 Filter; Trigger clock and drum sequencer; 2x Drums; Multi-buffered mult; Rnd LFO/Random source; EG Envelope; VCA Amplifier; A Mix Audio mixer; DSP FX module; and finally, the Output module.

Let’s just step back, draw breath, and examine the options here. This means that we have the means to create a sequence onboard, which can drive two VCOs, via a filter and envelope, and can be outputted to an FX module, while we also have drums kicking off around it. That’s insane! So the next question is, does it sound any good?

The Pico looks small and compact against a full 84HP setup

3HP to sound quality

Let’s start right at the beginning, with the VCOs. These are not VCOs in the traditional sense, as they are digital (they would have to be, given the size), but they do offer lots. There are two banks of 16 waves, offering basic Triangles, Saws and Pulses, through to much more digital and harmonically rich tones. There are also tones with ‘subs’ mixed in, which is helpful if you don’t want to use the second VCO purely as a sub.

Blending the two VCOs together can be achieved through the audio mixer, although because of the nature of the VCOs, I did find they’d grate and jar quite easily. There is a degree of harshness of digital tone here, so in my view, they’d work better in a pairing if either used in a modulatory fashion,
or pitched in a manner other than a straight unison.

“Its a full fledged Eurorack system in a pint-sized 42HP case, costing around £1,000”

Talking of unisons, it is at this point you discover that with the Pico form comes a degree of tradeoff. Wave selection and Tuning are achieved via two small pots, with the tuning pot covering around eight octaves. This is a very long throw for such a small pot, and with no fine-tune pot available, it can be a bit of an effort to centre the note in tune. It’s also possible to modulate the wave to meander, via CV control – and some excellent sonics came tumbling from the VCOs, with one patched to switch waveform, via LFO. The VCOs actually sound pretty good; they are clean and bright, with some of the digital waveforms offering particular sonic interest. They can also be switched to LFO mode, with the register moving up into the audio range.

Moving to the VCF1, this is quite a basic design, based loosely on the Russian Polivoks filter. As well as the expected Cutoff and Resonance pots, there is a CV input, with attenuation, for control of cutoff, and a switch to flick between low-pass and band-pass operation. The VCF will self-oscillate quite nicely; in fact, it shrieks very well, making it akin to something ‘acid’-like, but it does suffer from the inevitable low-end dropout associated with ladder designs. I can’t say that this is my favourite style of filter, but it’s perfectly acceptable and usable, and I think it speaks volumes about who Erica believes might be drawn to the Pico System concept. It’s a modular groovebox – with this in mind, it makes sense to have used a characterful VCF for those 303-style timbres.

Grooving in the box

So now we’ve broached the subject of grooveboxes, we should explore this further, as there are other elements that give us clues and functionality. Firstly, at the front end is the Seq module, which provides a suitable source for basic 16-step patterns. I say basic, because it only offers a 16-step capability, but within these steps, it’s no slouch. The CV output is quantised to one of nine scale types, while the gate length is adjustable at the step level and also offers glide, again at the step level. Those 303-like groovebox sensibilities are shining through again.Sequences can be stored, in the non-volatile memory, offering storage of up to 16 patterns. It would have been a useful addition to allow pattern chaining, but then given the 3HP form factor, Erica is already packing a lot into a small module.

Thanks to the LED display, it’s reasonably easy to enter steps and the two onboard pots illuminate to give you clues as to the mode of operation. On a module of this size, it’s going to be a little fiddly but surprisingly, it’s not too bad at all on this front. I’ve used sequencers that are considerably bigger and found them more confusing, which is largely down to having a reasonable display. I did find myself referring to the manual often in order to remember what the glowing colours of the pots signified. Importantly, the Seq module is also open to clocking from an external source, which is pretty vital when linked with our next port of call.

Included in the Pico system are two drums modules and the Trigger module. The latter is essentially a sequencer for drums – but differing from the aforementioned Seq module, programming is achieved with any HTML5 capable device, through Erica’s dedicated programming page, via any device with a suitable audio output. This means that by using a device such as an iPad, iPhone or even computer, you can both program and organise patterns, delivering them by attaching a mini-jack cable between the two devices and sending an audio burst, with the upload taking about half a second. It’s elegant and beautifully easy to use, so much so that it made me wonder why something similar couldn’t have been implemented with the Seq module, to circumvent some of the keyhole programming. The Trigger module offers four output channels, so enough for the usual kick, snare, closed hat and A.N.Other, which is where the elegance of the two included Drums modules come into play. Each Drums module offers two tonal sound sources, which are sample-based, and straight out of the box there are plenty of useful noises included – everything from the usual 808/909 sounds, to single triggers drawn from the likes of the classic Amen loop, along with various white-noise-based snares and other bleeps and whoops.

It’s all patched in, but surprisingly clear to work with…

But the fun doesn’t stop there, as Erica has included its Programmer dongle, which will allow the user to remove the module from the case and upload their own samples to the module, for playback, via their dedicated software which is accessible from the website. Operating at a gritty 12-bit/44.1kHz resolution, triggering is tight and punchy, with additional control of onboard parameters, such as Pitch, Volume and Decay. Again, I can’t help but scratch my head and wonder how the bods at Erica have managed to pack so much into such a tiny space, and having the two modules, offering four timbres in total, is a real coup. It’s very flexible, and despite the size, actually very easy to use, although there will be the predictable requirement to remove the Drum modules from the case if you want to upload your own samples. You’ll also have to provide yourself with a Micro USB cable, to plug in the Programmer, as this isn’t included, but they’re cheap enough to purchase online, so no great shakes.

Once in operation as a combo, the trio of Trigger and two Drums is a pretty potent combination. The Trigger module offers clocking options in both directions, so it’s logical enough to send a clock to the Seq module, to clock your mono line together with your drums, and there it is: your own tiny groovebox, with a vast amount of flexibility that you only get with modular. CV control is available to only the first drum on each Drums module, at which point it is possible to control the likes of pitch and volume, or even the selected sample.

Alternatives

Given that this is a complete system, it’s difficult to think of exact alternatives, as this is a fully modular system, in a pint-sized form. In size, it is very comparable to the Moog Mother-32 which, at half the price, is excellent value for money but will lack many of the routing options available here. In sound, the newly announced Studio Electronics Tonestar 8106 has that groovebox feel and timbre, sounding more like an SH-101 – but you’ll need a case to put it in. The Pittsburgh Lifeforms Systems can be made up to a similar spec, but not surprisingly, will be larger. All of the suggested systems here do not offer solutions for the drum side of the Pico, which gives you a hint at how much you really get for your money. I’d consider buying the Pico Drums modules to place in any system.

The Holy Trinity of a Trigger and two Drums modules offers a surprising amount of percussive punch

The utilitarian manifesto

This is a fully spec’d modular, so Erica has taken the very wise precaution of including a number of utility modules. Starting with the Multi, we have an active buffered two-channel unit, with the addition of LEDs to display signal presence. This is pretty vital for getting the two VCOs to play together, otherwise you would need to revert to stackable cables or the like.
The Rnd module is a bit misleading by name, and again offers a whole bunch of useful features. As the name implies, it will generate random CVs in the shape of Sample And Hold, with a white-noise output included, but also has an accompanying pulse generator, giving a ‘mini Turing machine’ feel. Going further, there is also a Sine and Pulse LFO available, along with a clock input, which is rare thing and much appreciated on any system.

“Again, I can’t help but wonder how the bods at Erica have managed to pack so much in”

You’ll obviously need an Envelope generator and VCA in the equation, with the latter offering two channels, both with individual audio and CV input. The EG envelope module, on the other hand, is essentially AR-based but, thanks to a central pot, modes can be swept to induce states of sustain, giving it an ASR feel instead. The phase shapes are also switchable between logarithmic and linear. It’s basic, but in keeping with the rest of the Pico modules, packs a lot into a small area.

Still, I can’t help but wonder why Erica didn’t make it a fully fledged ADSR with small pots, given the complexity and sophistication of the rest of the system. Again, this may well have something to do with the groovebox roots, as the envelope is arguably in that 303 camp.

The A Mix module is a great little three-input audio mixer, with three independent volume controls for each channel, outputting to a signal-summed mono output.

The backend

The final part of the Pico equation is at the backend. There is an incredibly useful output stage, offering a L-R input, outputting to a mini-headphone jack and a mini-jack stereo main output, but why in stereo? Essentially because preceding the output is the DSP module, which is a bounty of great effects, some of which are stereo.

Selected via a colourful light (although it’ll be quite obvious when you hear them), DSP offers Mono and Stereo delays, Pitch-shifting and Granular delays, Reverbs, Leslie simulator and Overdrive/Bitcrush. All are highly usable and very clean in timbre – so much so, you almost feel like you could use more than one.

Completing the full system lineup is a good selection of colourful patch cables, in various lengths, meaning that nothing further is required to get started, other than a suitable mini-jack cable to get into your mixer or DAW. The PSU is low voltage, and comes complete with a full length IEC cable, so you won’t need to be cited close to a wall.

Beating a retreat using the iPad to program up patterns to send to the Trigger module

Do I Really Need This?

If you’re looking for a first foray into the world of Eurorack, this could well be a great starting point. Don’t be fooled by the size, it’s a fully fledged, fully functional modular in a small footprint, which will also doubtless appeal to those with limited space. With a tiny footprint of 245x140mm (approx), everyone can find a space to lose this on their desk, and the routing options will be vast compared to anything else that is this size, currently on the market. I also believe that it represents excellent value for money. Okay, it’s around £1,000, which is a lot of money for anyone, but what you will be able to do with this is pretty substantial, and on the modulation side alone, it will leave most synths in the shadows. A full-sized modular with this many modules could easily cost another £500, so in this respect, it is a bit of a bargain.

“The only downside is the size. Working with a patch can be like wading through a jungle”

Conclusion

Without beating around the bush, this is quite a package. In use, there is plenty of full-on fun to be had straight out of the box. The VCOs are very functional and have a great range, but strangely, I preferred them in isolation, rather than stacked in unison, where they just didn’t seem to sit well together. But thanks to the large choice of waves, available as a starting point, you can do far more with the VCOs than just assign them in unison. For me though, the weakest element is the filter which, although grainy and functional, feels a little unsophisticated. This has much to do with its Polivoks roots, but I must agree that in context, the filter has much to offer, and many will like it. It’s just my personal view, but then it’s also residing against the jewels that form the drum part of the system. These are just great and are very usable in a number of settings.

I have to say that Erica has done an excellent job of putting together a highly elaborate and functional system, in the smallest of footprints. It’s all very tidy, although the downside to that is the size. Working with a patch can become a little like wading through a thick jungle of cables, but with everything in very close proximity.

It’s a little too close for comfort on occasions, but that probably has more to do with what I am used to, and the fact that at my age, I like to see nice clear legends, without the need to squint (although I have used far worse on that front). There is a lack of MIDI on this system, probably because Erica sees it as a standalone, but it would be perfectly possible to create a basic clock pulse from a DAW and send into the Pico modular, so that you can record any patterns for inclusion in DAW-based work. However, as a standalone setup, you would struggle to turn out a whole song, on the fly, as the sequential capabilities are not substantial enough. It’ll still prove to be a great source of inspiration for getting ideas going, though, and I feel that this could be its greatest strength. The fact Erica has also included so many modules, that are utility-based and really useful, underlines the fact that it clearly knows what people want in a system.

It’s coherent and well thought through and is going to serve anyone well, particularly if it’s their first foray into Eurorack. Outside of that, I’m very impressed with the modules in general, and can see many of them may well find places in bigger systems. Don’t be fooled by the size, they really do pack one hell of a punch!

Key Features

  • Fully fledged subtractive Eurorack modular
  • Contains a whopping 14 modules
  • Two VCOs included as standard
  • Two Drum modules also included
  • Two sequencers, for both CV and Gate triggering
  • System width: 42HP
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