Zorx Electronics
ZAPS - Winter Plankton

ZAPS - Winter Plankton

by Ellison Wolf

Winter Plankton might seem like a strange, yet slightly familiar name, and that’s because it’s a mashup of two existing Eurorack companies: Winter Modular and Plankton Electronics, along with musician/product designer Miguel EEDL. The three parties have joined forces to create ZAPS, which I first witnessed at Superbooth 2021 and it was immediately clear back then how much fun and versatile it could be. Though I didn’t get a full grasp of it at the time, what I did garner appealed to me at first look.
They call ZAPS a “percussion line” module, and yes, you can have it be your kick/snare/hat drum machine, but I think it’s more of a playable funky groove machine that kicks out melodies, blurts out rhythms, and sputters and squeaks. ZAPS doesn’t exactly look like an 808 or 909 or whatever, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work and sound like a classic drum machine if you want. The sliders throw you off a bit, as they seem like the focal point (and they are in many ways), but the twelve small buttons to the right of the sliders have a very recognizable gridded drum pad/machine layout, and that’s exactly what it is. Each of these buttons can hold a preset sound and be played like a drum pad by pressing the button—or better yet—or can be sequenced, letting ZAPS cycle through each of the buttons. With the performability on hand, you can take ZAPS for a ride that other drum machines—I mean, “percussion line modules”—could only hope for. And with the flexible modulation routing, the sequencing of presets and banks, and the ability to save and recall all of it, ZAPS will take you for a ride.
ZAPS is broken down internally into twelve banks, each holding twelve presets. It’s easy to switch between banks, presets (manually or via the Trigger input), and otherwise maneuver around the module. As for the twelve presets, that’s where the action happens in terms of making and altering sounds. Consisting of two analog oscillators that are digitally controlled, there is a three-stage (attack, release, and hold) envelope for each VCO that can also modulate each VCO’s pitch. You can retrigger the envelope for some stuttering, AM and FM all over the place, do some cross-frequency modulation, morph between presets (amazing), add noise and randomization to any parameter, and sculpt the tone of each VCO with the onboard HPF. There are six assignable CV inputs (in twelve assignable groups, each with six CV outputs), and any CV group can be assigned to any of the banks, which can then be routed to modulate almost anything (even the banks themselves!). The CV ins can even be configured as outputs to go along with the single mono Main output. It’s easy to copy and paste presets from slot to slot within a bank, and to copy and paste banks so you could have two or more banks that are similar, but with different modulation or parameters. This is great because it lets you experiment with a copy of a favorite bank while retaining the core version of it. Safe! There’s even a Snapshot mode where you can save a preset with all of the changes being made in real time, so that all CV modulation and other parameter changes can be recorded to a preset slot. If you like what you’re hearing out of a preset in real time, this is a great way to preserve that, while still retaining the original sample. Again, this is easy to do and it wasn’t long before this process was committed to memory as I was utilizing it a lot. Granted, the slots of a particular bank can fill up fast when you’re saving presets like this, so I made Bank 12 my “Snapshot Bank” where I would save the snapshots, and then I could copy the final snapshotted banks that I wanted to save for longer term storage into a different bank for safe keeping. All of this is pretty intuitive and fast—just a few seconds of button pushes and a few scrolls of the screen at most—and really lends itself to non-destructive, real-time hands-on (and other hyphenated terms) experimentation and sound designing.
The screen was my biggest concern initially. Sometimes I just can’t bear to look at another screen, that between my computer, phone, TV, GPS, RING…microwave…OK, I’m reaching here, but you get the idea. There’s a lot of screen time going on in my world, but ZAPS does a great job with the screen issue. The screen itself is bright, clear, and easy to read, making it quick to get in and out, and with a pretty painless learning curve. It’s helpful and shows a lot of information without being overwhelming or too time consuming, and I really found the screen to be—dare I suggest—nice to use?! Going from function to function, assigning CV to parameters, selecting banks, saving/recalling, etc., and viewing randomization amounts were all done in a visually expedited fashion that I highly appreciate.
Soon enough, it was time to start patching ZAPS to the hilt. I found it to be pretty easy to sequence a two or three (or more) preset-based pattern by programming certain notes on a sequencer (in my case I used both Five12’s Vector and Winter Modular’s Eloquencer) and patching the CV output into the Slot CV input on ZAPS. It took me a minute to set it all up in the Vector, to figure out which note would trigger each of ZAPS twelve pads, and I had to do a few things in ZAPS to sync it all up; but once I did, I saved this 12-note sequence as a preset in Vector for easy recall, and for future reference of the note values coming from Vector that would trigger each pad on ZAPS, for programming customized beats and patterns. It helped for memory’s sake to program and assign (and save) each module to the same numerical bank and/or track (like Part 8 on Vector and bank 8 on ZAPS) for easy recallable syncing. Since the pads/presets on ZAPS are are like drum machine pads, you can add some extra spice in real time by playing along to your sequence and this becomes interesting since ZAPS, being a single voice, when you play a pad over a sequence, depending on where you press the pad and how everything is configured, your preset sound might be cut short when the next preset is triggered, or it might override your sequenced preset.
ZAPS blend of pads, sliders, and yes, menu diving/button combo-ing found my fingers moving around, flashing some shine on the way to creating really interesting rhythms, melodies, and sound baths, and changing them in ways I mostly couldn’t predict. Much of the time my tweaking was, well, not necessarily random, but not meticulously planned out and sound-sculpted either, more of a jumping in and trying things out to see what happens, and ZAPS really shines brightest when you let go of expectation and grab onto the sliders. It’s when you start modulating and sequencing things that ZAPS unleashes its full power. Since most of the sliders have two functions via the two modes, moving a slider in one mode changes the relative position of the slider but not the value in the other mode, so the physical position of a slider doesn’t always (or usually, especially after a lot of tweaking) represent the actual value. While ZAPS does a good job by illuminating the sliders in degrees to show how close you are to the real value of each slider (brighter is closer), it can still be confusing, and somewhat tedious. This is par for the course for this type of dual modality with a single controller. And while it might be easy to go off the rails (mostly in a good way) through ZAPS thoughtful architecture—both in its layout and in its software infrastructure—it’s easy to find your way back to your home bank. I never felt like I was in no-man’s land, especially since I always made sure to have a core preset or bank saved for posterity.
One of the highlight features on ZAPS is the Morph function, which expands greatly on the available sonic potential. Since you can assign any of the twelve preset slots to morph into any of the others, that means each slot has twelve different potential sound partners, and 12 x 12 = 144. By adjusting the Morph amount you can get a whole lot from very little, and of course this can be modulated, so your preset can start off in one place—on one sound—and end somewhere completely different. This is an amazing feature that alone makes ZAPS unique and was probably my favorite part of ZAPS—it’s really versatile for sound/preset designing. It’s like a two-wave wavetable for single-sound presets. That, I can get behind!
The CV assigning on ZAPS is another powerfully deep integration. With six CV inputs (which can also be configured to outputs) that are assignable to any of the presets or banks, you can use one CV input to modulate any number of parameters, across any number of banks. It’s powerful, and the six CV slots go far.
ZAPS exceeded my expectations and is much deeper than I’d imagined, but I do wish there a couple of things I would love to see: first, I wish there were more filtering options (like an LPF and a BPF) other than just the HPF. I’d also love the ability to separate the filter from being tied to both oscillators as it currently is. While I’m fantasizing a bit, I’d love to see resonance for the filtering, too, and if one of those CV ins could be assigned to be a stereo out (with assignable pan for each preset), that would be amazing.
If ZAPS is typical of what a Winter Plankton release is going to be like, keep ‘em coming. The VCOs sound great, and the range of tones you can get in ZAPS—from great bell-y FM sounds, noisy fuzz, cross-modulated waves, satisfying clicky hats/hits, deep sine-based kicks, to tons of stuff I can’t name—makes it useful for percussion/drums, weird melodies and basslines, noise, and noise bursts, sequenced sound effects…really, anything goes. It’s an immensely programmable and explorable module, but still such a performable instrument, and the ease of its interface (I liken it to a cross between a drum machine and a cool 70s mono synth) is impressive. It’s easy to get lost sculpting presets and banks and making snapshots of favorite sounds, and I was constantly being surprised by the sounds coming out of ZAPS. I know this is said of so many modules, but the more time I spent with ZAPS the more rewarding it was, and the more excited I got about it. So many possibilities, so much fun…Get ready to be ZAPPED!

Price: $589