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Synth Heaven

Having just returned home from SynthFest UK 2019 held at Sheffield's Octagon, I thought it might be appropriate to focus this column on the somewhat alien world of modular analogue synths and related accessories.

Paul White in his studio, 2017.While doing anything other than ‘experimental’ live gigs with a modular system will always be a challenge (a 45-minute break between tunes for repatching and resetting the controls?), there’s no arguing that it is possible to coax sounds from a personally selected combination of modules that a workstation synth would have little chance of replicating. In the studio, where there’s time to work on a sound, a modular system can be immensely powerful, and even though most modular functions are monophonic unless you splash out on a lot of extra kit, that really doesn’t matter. After all, most orchestral work is based on combinations of monophonic instruments — as long as you have multitrack recording facilities you are in business.

What I like most about SynthFest UK is the real enthusiast vibe that pervades the show, and I also love those booths displaying a bit extra in the way of weirdness such as attaching electrodes to plants to produce control voltages, flatpack self-assembly modules, and photocells that turn the moving shadows of objects into control signals. I was also drawn towards some of the effects pedals ‘less ordinary’ on demo on the Audio Distribution Group booth: Old Blood Noise Endeavours, KMA, Meris, Earthquaker Devices and so on. Many of these play very nicely with modular synth systems. Indeed, there’s a close parallel between the modular synth market and guitar pedals — and even DAW software plug-ins — insomuch as you can keep adding to your system in small chunks as you can afford it rather than having to save up for the latest massive synth.

What I like most about SynthFest UK is the real enthusiast vibe that pervades the show.

While some of the modules on offer weigh in some way above an impulse purchase price, there are always affordable bits and pieces that you can make use of between major purchases. Even the ‘big’ companies were demoing products to woo the modular crowd, with Korg in particular showing some unbearably cute mini synths and rhythm machines.

This year the noise levels were very manageable and amongst the ambient sequences, zwees and blibbles I picked out bits of Stranger Things and the Mos Eisley Cantina tune. But I’m still waiting for somebody to program up the theme from The Archers on a modular system... Maybe that would be a good challenge for next year?

The only slightly scary part of the show for me was the Soundgas booth showing refurbished vintage kit such as Roland Space Echo tape echo units, because I remember reviewing several of the items on display when they were new!

Paul White Editor In Chief