Neutral Labs NERMAL - DIY Build
In the world of modular synthesis, there are many companies that offer distortion modules, but few of them really stand out. The Neutral Labs NERMAL is a destructive 3 layer distortion module that is able to modulate frequencies in the audio range to produce some rather unexpected harmonics.
Known primarily for the desktop synth ELMYRA, the NERMAL is Neutral Labs first stab at eurorack and from what we can tell, it won’t be their last. We were anxious to get our hands on this build and learn all about its unique abilities.
The Kit and where to get it (in the U.S.)
After seeing a few demos of the NERMAL, we knew we had to track one down. We ordered up from our friends over at Synthcube and within a few days it arrived safe and sound. Upon cracking the box open we were shocked to see the care in separating the components into “sections” or smaller packaging.
Neutral Labs really made it easy to keep the parts from getting all mixed up. They even state on their build document that one needs to go through one bag of parts at a time so that you won’t lose parts or have to double check resistor values. This was pretty rad that they were thinking of the builder.
Let’s get on with it …
Start with the resistors and diodes as with any kit. You want to make sure to match the diodes to the silkscreen due to polarity. The orientation of the resistors doesn’t matter, but you do what to ensure you have a good solder joint when it is all said and done. We use top down soldering for resistors and diodes so this part of the build goes pretty fast. Once this is complete, it is time for the ICs.
The ICs and caps…
An easy way to solder all of the IC sockets (there are 6 of them) is to set them into the PCB pads and place a piece of cardboard on top of the board. Then, flip the whole PCB over (the cardboard holds the sockets in place) and solder one pin on each of the sockets. Once this is complete, feel free to move from socket to socket completing the soldering as you go.
Electrolytic capacitors are a different breed than normal film capacitors due to their polarity. Make sure you match the silkscreen when placing the parts on the board. The long leg on the cap is the positive ( + ) leg whereas the short leg is the negative ( – ). Once you have these in place, flip the board over and tack them all down. If they aren’t completely straight when you are done, don’t fret, gently push on the part and heat the underside if it really bothers you.
Placing the power header and L7805
After the caps comes the power header and the L7805 and heat sink. The easiest way to place the header pin is to place a dab of solder on the PCB, and then hold the pin assembly where it needs to go as you flip the board over to heat up the pre-soldered pad. If done correctly, the header pins will just click into place as you heat the solder. Now you can flip the board over and finish tacking down the rest of the pins.
As for the L7805, place this component into its place and then gently bend it towards the IC to its right. You don’t want to bend it so much that it is sitting on the IC, but just enough to keep it above it. Just keep in mind that the heat sink (metal) side should match the double line of the white outline on the PCB.
The recommended way to do it is not to insert the legs into the PCB holes too far, but just a bit, solder them in and then bend the legs at a 90 degree angle as shown in the picture. This will lower the depth of the completed module, so it looks more tidy.
Neutral Labs - Time Lapse Build
Jacks, switches and Pots (oh and that single LED)
Place the LED into the PCB and push it all the way into its home. Make sure you pay attention to the polarity of the LED as well as the silkscreen that states which leg goes where. (Long let is positive). Once placed, bend one of the legs on the underside to keep it in place.
Mount the pots next and don’t worry about soldering them into place just yet (we will get to that in just a tad). The jacks can be placed next and we found that after placing them, we could solder the ground pin to the PCB using top down soldering to keep them in place. Next up, place the 5 switches in their pads and grab the NERMAL panel.
Almost to the FINISH line!!!
Gently line up the panel to the jacks, switches and pots. We had to use a pair of tweezers to help keep the switches in line as we lowered the panel into place. Grab a couple of nuts and hand tighten them onto the pots and jacks to keep the panel where it needs to be when you flip the board to tack everything down. After you have completed this step, you can go ahead and place the rest of the nuts on the switches/jacks/pots to complete the Neutral Labs NERMAL build.
Pat yourself on the back… you have just completed the NERMAL!
NERMAL Build Gallery
** The last 7 images of the NERMAL PCB on the brown table were taken directly from Neutral Labs build document and are not ours.**
NERMAL Audio Demo
In the audio demo below, we had just completed the NERMAL build. This was the first time we powered it up after testing. The sample audio you hear is raw and unfiltered. It is being played in a recording space and the audio is direct from the iPhone.
Neutral Labs NERMAL- Final Thoughts...
We love us some NERMAL. Period. The sound and the harmonics that come from this module (which you wouldn’t think they would) are pretty sweet. A beast of its own kind, sometimes you can just hear yourself dialing it in and the NERMAL chews it up and spits it out.
The LED behind the teeth on the panel also give you an idea of whats going on behind the scenes. As it flashes faster, the mangling gets worse (in a good way). Detailed build documents as well as a reasonable price really make the NERMAL appetizing to any artist looking for more grit to their rack.
CON: The only thing that we would suggest, (should there be other versions of the NERMAL in the future) is to space the graphics on the panel a little better. At a glance it looks like the screen printing is squashed on the panel and there is a lot of space at the top and bottom of the module. While this is only a suggestion (and opinion), this was in no way a reason not to buy the NERMAL … it’s badass. Buy it.