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A Guide To Modular Worlds

Book Review By Rory Dow
Published July 2020

The world of modular synthesis is equal parts enticing and daunting. The bewildering number of modules, formats and terminology can be off-putting to newcomers and can even make it seem like a secret society — if you don’t know the club handshake, you’re out.

A Guide To Modular WorldsA Guide To Modular Worlds, by Rolf-Dieter Leib and Ulf Kaiser, is aimed at beginner to intermediate synth scholars and, in 300 pages, seeks to explain all technical aspects of modular synthesis. Chapters are split into logical groups with the first covering history, East coast versus West coast, various modular formats and a brief summary of relevant electronics. The rest focuses on everything you need to know about: oscillators, synthesis types, filters, envelopes, LFOs, clocks, VCAs, sequencing, waveshaping, FM, AM, polyphony, controllers, MIDI, CV, effects and more. There are also chapters on software, DAWs and communication between computers and hardware.

Scattered throughout the book are a number of interviews with some of the industry’s big names and rising stars. The list is impressive, with heavy-hitters like Dieter Doepfer (the father of Eurorack), Dave Smith (Sequential), Stephan Schmitt (Native Instruments), Dave Rossum (Rossum Electro-Music and Emu) and Gene Stopp (Moog). Also, there are artists like Jean‑Michel Jarre, Boris Blank (Yello), Richard Devine, Daniel Miller (Mute Records) and Vince Clark (Erasure, Depeche Mode and Yazoo). And not content with that, there are also interviews with relatively new companies like 1010music, Verbos Electronics, 4ms, Cwejman, WMD, Erica Synths, Mutable Instruments and Expert Sleepers. I’ve probably only listed half the interviewees here; suffice to say that there are many. Each interview is a couple of pages long, and even though the same questions were often repeated, I enjoyed them immensely.

Back to the technical stuff, I was surprised by just how much of the book was not modular specific. Of course, when explaining fundamentals like oscillators, the knowledge can be applied to any synthesizer, modular or otherwise, so I think anyone interested in learning more about synthesizers generally could benefit from reading it. The book sticks fairly rigidly to technical explanations of synthesizer elements. It doesn’t really delve into sound design. Throughout the wordy technical explanations there are plenty of good diagrams and pictures to help visualise the information. The editing and layout are excellent and you certainly won’t feel short-changed on word count — this is a text- and information-heavy book. My only complaint is that my concentration was just occasionally broken by evidence that English is not the author’s first language. Happily, though, these issues weren’t widespread and I felt that, in general, the information was conveyed clearly and accurately.

A Guide To Modular Worlds should appeal to anyone looking to learn more about the fundamentals of modular synthesis and, together with the many excellent interviews, will give any newcomer to the scene a good grounding in the modular industry as it stands today. Search online for a Retail stockist.