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The Modular Mindset

Paul White By Paul White
Published April 2020

Paul WhiteI have to admit that on occasions I think the modular synth concept is a bit bonkers. It takes ages to set up a sound with little chance of being able to repeat it, and then there are all those cables to deal with. Surely programmable synths were invented specifically to get around that shortcoming, and they probably save money into the bargain? However, when it comes to guitar effects pedals, I realise I actually have a lot in common with the modular synth brigade. Multi-effects devices are widely available, you can program them so as to make it easy to call up favourite setups, and they are capable of delivering high–quality results at a fraction of the cost of a board full of individual pedals — so why then do I find myself with a studio bookshelf full of effects pedals and a gigging pedalboard that looks like the wiring harness from a nuclear submarine?

When it comes to creative experimentation, you really can’t beat just hooking up stuff and then twiddling the knobs to see what happens.

I suspect the argument is pretty much the same as the one in favour of modular synthesis — using discrete pedals allows us to combine devices of our choosing to create sounds and effects that, if not always unique, do fit more closely with our personal musical tastes. New sounds are great ways of stimulating the musical imagination, and hooking up a bunch of guitar pedals can produce effects that are just not possible using all-in-one processors. I’m sure the same can be said of modular synthesizers, where the user chooses modules from different manufacturers to create a more personalised instrument. Indeed, you can mix synth modules and effects pedals to produce some truly wonderful sounds — there’s no law that says everything has to fit into a Eurorack.

Of course the other thing we have in common is the need for a lot of cables, pedals needing cables for both signal and power — and pedals also need good–quality, multi-output power supplies to make them give of their best. Maybe patching together all these elements is part of the karma of the creative process? Some pedal manufacturers have come up with systems of their own that allow multiple pedals to form a kind of multi-effect collective complete with programmability, others allow MIDI programming and remote parameter control, but when it comes to creative experimentation, you really can’t beat just hooking up stuff and then twiddling the knobs to see what happens. Maybe having a modular mindset isn’t so bonkers after all.

Paul White Editor In Chief

Published April 2020