by Bradley Millington
Nine years after its debut, Make Noise has released the 2nd version of their popular René module. René version 2 preserves what made the original so magical, while significantly expanding its capabilities to [quite literally] new dimensions. The concepts and programming interface of the new version will be familiar to users of the original René–there’s just more of everything: more channels, more states, more Snake patterns, and more CV and Mod options.
The first thing you notice about the new René is how striking the front-panel interface is. On the left, 16 tri-color LED knobs are arranged in a 4x4 grid, serving both as a way to program voltages per step and as an indicator of the currently playing sequence/s. On the right side, there is a 4x4 grid of gold touch plates [with increased sensitivity over the original René’s touch plates] acting as a programming interface for setting myriad options and for interacting with the sequencer as it plays. Above the grid are additional touch plates for selecting the channels and their pages of options, along with managing global settings and stored states. While this might sound daunting at first, even with the increased number of channels and features René is remarkably intuitive to use thanks to clear labeling and the combinations of color, blinking/breathing lights, and illuminated page labels. Admittedly, a few of the button combinations for various tasks can be hard to remember and I did have to reference the manual at first to remind myself what all of the lit up indicators meant, but this is to be expected when learning deep modules.
While traditional sequencers typically step through a sequence in a linear and predictable manner, René–which derives its name from René Descartes, the mathematician, philosopher, and creator of the Cartesian coordinate system–uses the concept of Cartesian sequencing. In this method, a sequence can move up, down, left, right, diagonal, etc., and its 16 steps are mapped to the 4x4 grid and may be indexed by X and Y clocks independently along their respective axes. When using only a single clock source, the original René offered an alternative to Cartesian sequencing called Snake mode, which traverses the step grid along one of 16 user-selectable paths. Snake mode is retained in the new René and is integral to the operation of its first two channels. In this method of sequencing the order in which steps are originally programmed is not necessarily the order in which they will be played, giving rise to new permutations of the original sequence. You can easily create unpredictable sequences that feel far more organic than what you’d expect, and this yielding of precise control is what makes this new version of René so joyful to play.
In contrast to the single channel of the original, René version 2 has three sequence channels. The first two channels–labeled 'X' and 'Y'–are completely independent from each other, yet share a common feature set. Each takes a separate gate or trigger as a clock source to advance the sequence and the traversal of steps follows one of the 16 aforementioned Snake mode patterns. The third channel, labeled 'C' [for Cartesian mode] shares the X and Y clock sources, advancing the sequence along the axis of the same name with each gate or trigger. What makes this configuration of channels so ingenious is that by sharing X and Y clocks, the C channel is rhythmically related to the X and Y channels while retaining an independent path and sequence of voltages. Having the X and Y channels advance steps using Snake mode ensures those sequences also remain uniquely different from the Cartesian sequence using the same clocks. All three channels also have their own CV and Gate outputs.
René is always in one of two modes: channel programming mode or settings mode. In channel programming mode, you select a channel to program [X, Y, or C] and navigate among six pages of options using the <- and -> touch plates: Access, Gate, Glide, Snake, Fun[ction], and Quant[ize]. Access turns steps on or off–useful for reducing the sequence length or to interactively choose which steps are enabled in real-time. An option on the Fun page toggles whether René immediately jumps to an accessible step, or "sleeps" [maintaining the voltage of the current step] when an inaccessible step is reached. This has the effect of tying notes for the duration of multiple clock pulses. Gate determines whether a gate [or trigger, depending on the Trig option in the Fun page] is output when a step is reached [independent of whether access is enabled for a given step], Glide enables or disables portamento per step, and Snake selects one of 16 predetermined paths through the step grid for channels X and Y [this doesn't apply to the Cartesian channel]. Fun toggles per-channel options, modulation, and CV settings for the X and Y channels only. There is also a Scan option, which sets the step values for the current channel to match the physical position of the step programming knobs. Since René is always playing back values from memory, Scan is useful to quickly copy programmed values from one channel to another which may not necessarily match the knob positions. Finally, Quant specifies a user-programmable scale & voltage range from 1 to 4 octaves [you can also specify no scale for continuously variable, unquantized voltages–useful for modulation].
Both X and Y channels have Mod and CV inputs that take a gate or CV signal, respectively. Depending on the settings chosen on the Fun page, these inputs have different effects. A gate at the Mod input for a channel gate can reset the channel's sequence, inject additional clock pulses to advance the sequence [merged with the primary clock input], toggle the direction of the sequence, or start/stop the sequence. A CV signal at the channel's CV input can be added to the channel's voltage output [also quantized, for transposition within the chosen scale]. It can also alter the step location [an offset, relative to the current step] or dynamically choose among the available Snake patterns. A sample & hold option makes use of both the Mod and CV inputs to sample the CV input only when a rising edge is detected at the Mod input, adding that value to the voltage output until another rising edge is detected. The channel CV inputs have a potentiometer normalled to +5v so you can manually set a fixed CV value even when no CV input signal is present. The final feature of channel programming mode is Latch mode. In this mode, you can selectively override the Access and Gate programming for the sequence by toggling steps on and off as you would when normally programming. This allows you to non-destructively create variants of your sequence in a performance setting, with the ability to instantly revert to the originally programmed values.
One additional feature in the new René that’s not found on the original and takes it to a whole new dimension, is the introduction of the Z axis. This is a matrix of 64 stored states [across 4 banks] that can be manually selected, advanced by a gate input at the Z-Mod input, or indexed by a CV signal at the Z-CV input. When you store a state, all of these parameters are retained and can be instantly recalled [while René is playing]. In essence, René is not just three Cartesian planes of sequences, but rather three cubes of sequences whose Z dimension [or depth] can be traversed in real-time! This opens up all kinds of possibilities for chaining states together into longer sequences, subtle or dramatic alterations of sequence parameters between states, and plenty of hands-on interactivity to infuse near infinite variability into your performances.
Settings mode re-purposes the X, Y, and C channel selectors to manage multi-state programming and pasting [Mesh-programming, per the manual], state selection, and global settings–where you can save the entirety of all states of René with a single button press. René can also communicate state changes and Mesh-programming commands to other modules via the Select bus, allowing you to use René as a control center across multiple modules at once, such as the Make Noise Tempi, Expert Sleepers Disting mk4, and the WMD Sequential Switch Matrix.
While nearly everything we’ve come to know and love about the original René has been enhanced in this update, there are a few take-backs and design concessions. One thing I personally miss is the ability to hold one or more touch pads while playing in Play mode, to temporarily constrain René to only those steps; very useful for dialing in precise voltages by holding each step plate as you turn the knob, even when a clock source is present. All in all, any compromises are negligible in comparison to the huge new feature set, and it’s likely that Make Noise will address changes in a future firmware update.
As for tips and tricks, I love that you can store custom scale/quantization settings with each state, which lets you quickly create chord progressions by altering the available notes in each state. Transposition using CV to add voltages [still quantized] is another way to generate a lengthy musical progression from a single sequence, and you can add voltages through manual interaction [say, using Pressure Points], or perhaps patch the CV output of one channel of René to the CV input of another channel to sequence the transpositions. I find that using a slower clock division for the channel doing the transposing yields good results, allowing the modulated channel to complete its full sequence before being transposed. Another favorite technique of mine is to store an identical sequence across multiple states, but just change a few parameters like Access, Gate, or Mod/CV functions for each state, to yield some interesting variety over the sequence that you can recall easily when performing. You can change settings and parameters on-the-fly without stopping the sequence and without fear of losing the original stored states, and it’s easy to start with a standard repetitive sequence and end up somewhere completely different, while still relating musically and rhythmically to the original.
With the new René, happy accidents abound. It’s incredibly fun to interact and play with and rewards exploration. For me, this is what I love about modular in general, and René captures that spirit beautifully, sending me to new places I could never otherwise reach or imagine.
34 HP +12V 235 mA -12V 0 mA