We already met Patchblocks at the Musik Messe in Frankfurt in 2013 at a stand somewhere in a distant corner of a big hall. Hardly anybody stopped to have a look at what they were showing and we didn’t. That was a big mistake.
Patchblocks had their breakthrough using Kickstarter where it got the attention it was looking for. Eventually we could get a test version from the Benelux distributor More to check out. But what is it? The designers intended to create sound modules which are a combination of Max, Arduino, Moog and LEGO and pulled it off.
A Patchblock is a piece of hardware with an input and output, has two push buttons and two turn buttons, an USB port, on/off switch and a digital in and output and is battery powered which can be charged via USB. You can order Patchblocks per piece of per set of four and get a fifth Patchblock with a midi input.
Every Patchblock is individually programmable and can be used in combinations as a modular synthesizer or effect chain. You also can create arpeggios and sequences to control another Patchblock or via midi. CV in and output is not possible (yet) because the voltages of the analog in and output are not able to put out at CV levels.
To program your Patchblocks you need a computer (Mac or PC) with the free software editor downloadable at the Patchblocks website. You might think that the software is mayor nerd territory because programming gets crazy complicated. But the software is tackling this by presenting the user a visually based user interface called ‘visual programming language’ that resembles modular hardware. Patching components is straightforward and the user interface prevents you from making any mistakes. Basis modules are signal generators, filters, controllers and effects which you can rout in various ways. You still can go full on nerd by using algorithmic modules.
So when you create a patch with the software editor you can upload that patch to the Patchblocks via USB and disconnect the USB and use it stand-alone. For the review I created a patch with a noise generator, filter, effect and sequencer and uploaded it to the four Patchblocks. I couldn’t hear anything but the noise from the noise generator. After some research I found out I had to edit the patch so that the sound used the onboard digital mixer and had to patch the different components with each other. So you have to get the basic concepts down and then you can start using the software like intended. Luckily you can find some good tutorials on the Patchblocks website and start from there before you start programming your Patchblocks. For review purposes I skipped those tutorials to see how far I could get. It’s not that hard but having some basic understanding of the signal flow, synthesis and what comes with it is a must.
The sound quality of the Patchblock is good. The output is a bit low so you have to boost the output via the software a bit to get a normal output. To be honest I’m not a fan of mini jack connectors but it’s understandable considering that is Patchblock is fairly small.
Patchblocks have a huge fun factor and are interesting for modular setups and creative minds in general. Basic knowledge is a must but the software is really helping you and together with the tutorials are good. You can start by using a standard package and learn using the software to get used to it.
The price of one Patchblock, 64,95 euro, is not cheap since it’s a small programmable computer in itself. For the gear/synth freak this is the ultimate present. Patchblocks are available for purchase via de Patchblocks website and via dealers in Austria , Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands & Luxembourg) , Chile , Germany , Italy , Japan , North America (USA, Mexico and Canada) , Poland , Scandinavia (Denmark, Sveden, Finland & Norway) & Switzerland
One flaw I have to notice is the digital connectors construction. They can come loose easily when you connect several Patchblocks with eat other. The solution seems to be to use a little magnet just like the Little Bits do. Hopefully they will look into it and incorporate this in the next iteration of the hardware.