Welcome to another installment of our exclusive series Do It Live, where your favorite live acts take you into the booth and show you exactly how they perform. This is more than just launching clips in a DAW, or occasionally playing a live synth line - our guests are the real deal. This week, we meet with modular synth artist Julia Bondar, whose blend of harmonically rich synth work and dancefloor industrial rhythms have put her at the forefront of live modular techno acts.
It's no secret that modular rigs can be extremely overwhelming to the uninitiated, but her latest EP, I Want Forbidden, perfectly showcases her mastery over her machines and abilities as a producer and artist. You grab her latest work here. Below, she walks us through the organized chaos of her live rig, going deep on the hows and whys. Buckle up, this is a heavy one.
Words and photos by Julia Bondar
Since I remember myself making music, my initial goal was always to play it live, rather than do releases. I have been playing small live shows for the modular synth community for two years before I dared to make my first recordings. My ultimate goal and it yet remains – to make it danceable for my audience and bring my body into work during the performance too. I am one of the co-founders of the Endorphin.es brand. The brand specializes in designing modular synthesizers in Eurorack format. I started to play to help to promote, show examples of the sounds and inspire people. It was a time when Eurorack was spotted mainly by a noisy, drone, avant-garde and ambient music which I never been into myself. I wanted to create something more structured, melodic, dare to say even commercial. After getting experience in live performance and achieving proper structure, I started to make my first recordings by single takes from my modular system.
Recording music helped me understand what I was missing for my live performance. When I was working on the tracks in post-production, I understood that I have to pay more attention to the structure of the composition. It is easier to build in DAW than recreate it in live performance. The computer is great for editing the ideas but it is not immediate for generating ideas. The computer brings out the uptight perfectionist in us – we start editing ideas before we have them.
This way I prefer to be creative in my interaction and relationship with my instrument and its untamed sound.
The most challenging part is to lose the fear of dealing with the wide palette of the tricks your personal instrument offering you. That is why I appreciate my experience playing small shows.
Not long ago I build my dream set up which I used as for my live shows and for my latest EP I Want Forbidden, and already started to work on producing a new composition and totally new live program.
My portable setup is already tested over a few venues and I love my Submodular Systems Eurorack case, which weighs only 6 kg incl. the lid:
For studio purposes, I have almost identical setup in a Frap.Tools Uno 84 case, with duplicates of Arturia Beatstep Pro and Roland System-1M. That allows me to play live shows and make sketches and then interconnect the sequencer to another case and have all the tracks already set up. In contrary to my live case, the studio case has all the voices routed separately into a Focusrite 18i8 sound interface with ADAT expansion, so I can record up to 16 audio tracks simultaneously. However, in reality, I live record up to 8 tracks at single take and rest are routed from Access Virus Ti 2 and Roland JV1010 for additional textures or acoustic instruments.
The black 2x104hp Eurorack system you see in my studio left in the picture is the core system of my live performance:
Usually, modular nerds like to ask the Modular Grid setup link, so here is the link to my live case.
All the modules in the system structured by the voices. So far I have: main melody block and its variation, main bass synth and its variation, 7 drum voices and two-voice sampler. The main audio source for all the melodies and textures comes from the Endorphin.es - Furthrrrr Generator with Grand Terminal combo:
I can infinitely play with the filters, envelopes, and effects whatever and that thing is a true source of inspiration with a wide pallet of timbres. I can get anything from that combo, starting from plucked staccato sounds as in ‘Lust’, to famous folded metallic leads with the thru-zero FM modulation from ‘Fleurs Du Mal’.
My main bass lines come from Roland System-1M:
I have two of them and together with Andreas [Andreas Zhukovsky – Julia’s partner in crime at Endrophin.es and life], we customized them with special white LEDs look. Most of the time I use its SH-101 plug-out and it covers most of my bass needs. It delivers a strong sound I tested in many clubs so sometimes people almost blew away from the subwoofers. Stock System-1M synth is also great and its super-saw bass for example used in ‘Black T-Shirt’ track:
The additional bassline comes from Endorpin.es Godspeed VCO>Squawk Dirty VCF>Airstreamer EG>Milky Way FX/VCA chain and frequently it duplicates the main one being a few octaves above but delivering more acid character.
My main drum source is Blck_Noir module, which has 7 drum voices with effects and a DJ-style filter. Additionally, I have 2 voices Erica Synth Sample Drum sampler where I play extra drums or my own pre-recorded textures, for example from Access Virus Ti 2. You can’t bring all the instruments from the studio to the stage but you can prepare well to get the best of it in samples.
One of my kick-drums is duplicated and routed into the Strymon Magneto delay module to create additional rumbled textures synchronized to the whole rhythm clock. With the amount of repeats allows me to create feedback loop effects, which are super useful to fill the drops in live performance. For example, that feedback textures are all over here in my live performance one of the most famous techno clubs in Barcelona - MOOG:
In the modular synthesizers all the events are launched by analog pulses and voltages, so-called CV/GATE signals as well as triggers, clocks, random voltages, etc. They all are delivered from MIDI sequencer Arturia Beatstep Pro by a couple of Endorphin.es Shuttle Controls, which I also use as a power supply for each row. All my MIDI signal passes from Beatstep Pro to the Shuttle by USB cable so I don’t spend much time setting up as I can quickly unwrap or wrap up my modular case.
All my synth voices afterward pass into two daisy-chained Endorphin.es Cockpit stereo mixers. The kick-drum trigger additionally routed to trigger internal side-chain envelopes on those mixers. So far I can adjust which channel has more ‘ducking’ which is an essential tool to make a more or less tight mix in the live show. Usually, you don’t have EQ or compressors for each voice channel, so the live performance with the modular is a different story and good mix here achieved by a proper instrument balance, music score and, of course, trials and errors.
It is very hard to make a raw modular mix sound professionally live. It is hard as your sound is always compared to a DJ’s who play heavily mastered tracks. In most cases, the mix will simply fall apart in the clubs either with a bass drum or bassline being unbalanced. For that purpose, I have a trick: my whole modular mix is passed into TC Electronics Finalizer Express. You know, in the 90s people were mastering with that device, and it is a hi-end professional tool. In clubs, every sound engineer during the soundcheck will give you a big thanks for delivering a properly compressed signal so you can deliver the same sound pressure as if you play before or after the supporting DJ. Modular raw live mix has a huge dynamic range and that Finalizer will help you to deliver a proper sound especially in the small venues not over-flooding the club’s main limiter. In Barcelona for example that might be a critical point as clubs may get fines for such peaks and as a result.
Recording of my ‘I Want Forbidden’ EP was made in Barcelona during the summer-autumn 2019 in my cozy home studio. My approach throughout all releases remains the same: I record each track as a separate piece from my live performance program with my modular synthesizer. Up to 8 audio channels of live multitrack recording into Steinberg Cubase DAW with further adding of extra textures and polishing. In that case, I already have the structure in my head and before sending the stems for mixing me with Andreas only slightly edit them. Our good friend Blanali made the mixing and mastering.
All the photos except some that are stated are courtesy of Andreas Zhukovsky / Endorphin.es Production.