A lauded synthesist and an inspiring educator, Sarah Belle Reid’s techniques are innovative, explorative and experimental in all the right ways. As well as working ably with sounds from within her systems, she is known for fusing acoustic sounds, namely trumpet and the human voice, with modular synthesis to astonishing effect.
As an educator she runs online workshops with a particular focus on introducing newcomers to modular, also offering more advanced private mentorships to further explore the intricacies of electroacoustic music practice and performance. Sarah has released two albums: 2019’s Underneath & Sonder and 2021’s MASS. You can find out more about her music and resources at www.sarahbellereid.com
On her entry into modular
Up until 2012 I was working toward a career as an orchestral trumpet player in Montreal. In 2013, I made the decision to do a Master’s degree at California Institute of the Arts — I think, at the time, I was feeling a bit stuck in my practice and wanted to see what else was out there in the music world. During my graduate studies, I started to get interested by the idea of creating a modified trumpet that could interact with, and/or generate, electronic sound. My collaborator Ryan Gaston and I spent the next two years making ‘MIGSI’‑ Minimally Invasive Gesture Sensing Interface — an electronic sensor‑based interface that attaches to a trumpet and captures gestural data as you perform, which can then be routed into a computer as OSC or MIDI. So, my first entry into the world of electronic music didn’t really have anything to do with synthesizers, but was focused on creative coding and physical computing.
Along the way, I started to get into modular synths as well. I knew some folks who played modular, and I remember feeling so captivated by all the sounds they would create. As it so happened, the studio next door to the lab where we built MIGSI had a couple of beautiful old Serge modular systems, so I ended up spending many early mornings there gradually learning how they worked. One day Ryan and I had the idea to try using MIGSI to connect my trumpet to the Serge, and that was really the moment that solidified my interest in combining trumpet and modular, and sparked inspiration for years of explorations to come.
On her go‑to modules
Regardless of what format synth I’m playing, a preamp and envelope follower are always an important part of my setup. I’ve used the Doepfer A‑119 in my system for years, which has both of these functions in the same module, plus a variable threshold control for a gate output. I run my trumpet into the A‑119, and from there can send the trumpet audio into the synth for processing, and I use the envelope follower and gate outputs for continuous modulation or for a kind of onset detection, to trigger new events and sounds with each note I play.
I also really love any module that lends itself to self‑patching and feedback. I have always found chaos and unpredictability in sound and interaction to be fascinating, so whenever I’m trying out a new module, one of the first things I typically do is see how far I can wrangle it into a crazy feedback world. Some modules I have gotten a lot of mileage out of in this way are the Serge Triple Waveshapers, Buchla 258 Dual Oscillator, Zlob Modular VC F3DB fixed filter bank and more recently the Make Noise XPO stereo oscillator.
On combining synthesis with acoustic instruments
For me, getting into modular was never about learning a new secondary instrument, but always about creating a hybrid, electroacoustic vocabulary with the trumpet and modular together. I have always been really interested in just how much crossover there can be between acoustic and electronic sound worlds, depending on how you approach the instruments. For example, sticking microphones up the bell of the trumpet and blowing air through the tubes as you gradually move the valves can sound exactly like different colours of noise through modulated bandpass filters.
At the same time, you can explore ways to make your synthesizer sound more imperfect and organic, in order to achieve greater cohesion with acoustic sounds. Even subtle details can help to create a deep connection and interplay between the acoustic and electronic sound worlds. For instance, creating electronic sounds that wobble a little as they decay, brighten as they get louder, drift in pitch ever so slightly, or that have slight variation in articulation from one sound to the next — these can be great ways of imbuing your electronic sounds with a more lively, acoustic‑like sort of energy.
Getting these two sound worlds to mesh is always an interesting challenge, and I find that over the years the synthesizer has pushed me to expand my vocabulary on the trumpet, and the trumpet has encouraged me to find more nuance and breath within the synth. It’s really rewarding, and fun.
On the culture of modular
I have always loved how broad the modular community feels in terms of creative approach. Because there isn’t a formalised performance practice with modular synths in the same way as with more traditional instruments like violins or trumpets, you can really do your own thing... and because the process of putting together a modular synthesizer is so personal, it feels like there’s no right or wrong way to approach it.
I’ve started teaching modular synthesis online using VCV Rack, in a course called ‘Learning Sound & Synthesis’.
That said, when I was first getting into modular I was really intimidated by it all. Even though the community is supportive and vibrant once you’re in it, as a newbie I didn’t know where to begin, or how to get my foot in the door. Because of that, I’ve tried to turn a lot of my focus onto community‑building online, to create a safe, supportive, open space in which folks who know absolutely nothing about synthesis or modular can explore, exchange ideas, and develop their own personal creative practices.
Another big barrier to entry for many can be the cost of the gear itself. I started learning modular synthesis on an instrument I borrowed from my school, but of course not everyone has that opportunity. I’m a huge fan of virtual synth software, like VCV Rack, that sounds awesome and makes learning synthesis a lot more accessible and affordable for people. I use these in my personal setup all the time!
Aside from my own practice as a musician, I’ve started teaching modular synthesis online using VCV Rack, in a course called ‘Learning Sound & Synthesis’. My goal for this program was largely to tackle some of these barriers to entry in the modular synth world, and to help more people gain access to these incredible instruments. The ‘Learning Sound & Synthesis’ community has folks in it from all over the world, ranging from complete beginners to lifelong hobbyists to professional musicians exploring new directions in their careers. It’s quickly becoming a really inspiring, special corner of the synth landscape.