No longer the preserve of men in laboratories or capes, the modular synth business is thriving, and it's now easier to go modular than ever before. Read on and we'll show you how...
Modular synths, eh? Monolithic beasts emitting squeals and stridulations under the hands of caped sonic crusaders. Seductive, intimidating and surely far too complex for the average keyboardist? Even though I've been playing synths for 26 years, this was my view of modulars until only a few months ago. Then something happened: I bought one!
In this feature, I'm going to explain how and why I changed my mind about modulars, how I chose my modular and why you, too, should be going modular. I'll dispel some prime modular myths, hopefully making a little space in your heart for my knobular friends.
Say the word 'synthesizer' to most people and they'll think of a keyboard with a knob‑laden control panel and perhaps some blinking LEDs. Show those same people a modular synth (as I've done recently when demoing my modular to friends) and a look of fear and incredulity appears. What the hell is it? What are all those wires? It looks like some kind of old telephone exchange! That's not a synthesizer!
The irony is that modulars were the first commercial synthesizers. Indeed, they were the only commercial synthesizers until they were supplanted by portable, internally hardwired models like the Minimoog. Sadly, this article hasn't got space to cover the detail of the early days of synthesis, but there are many books covering this ground. I can recommend Analog Days by Pinch and Trocco as just one such excellent history.
Skipping all that jazz, we arrive in the 21st century, where the majority of commercially available synthesizers are digital devices: computers inside keyboards emulating various forms of synthesis. Whether it's the humble Micro Korg or the mighty Virus TI, it's a computer wearing a beard and quite often pretending to be a classic analogue synthesizer. Then we have the recent resurgence of non‑modular true analogue synthesizers: Moog's current products, the Alesis A6 Andromeda, Dave Smith's Prophet 08 and its siblings. Further to the left of this already esoteric and niche‑interest area is the shadowy, here‑be‑monsters terrain that the mighty modulars stalk...
If this is all confusing you, don't worry, you're not alone. During the course of my seduction by modular, I talked to quite a few keyboardists (some quite famous!) who were wary about modular synths. They kind of knew what modulars were but weren't going to say, just in case.
The basic point of modular synths is this: you decide everything. The modules are the discrete parts that you choose and arrange according to your own tastes: filters, oscillators, mixers, ring modulators, envelopes. This modularity, this flexibility, is very different from non‑modular systems.
Say you fire up your conventional, non‑modular analogue monosynth. You've got two or maybe three oscillators, probably going into one filter. Then you've got maybe one or two envelopes with which to shape the sound. The flow from sound source (oscillator) to tone control (filter) to dynamics/articulation (envelopes) is preset. Whatever was installed inside when you bought the synthesizer, that's it. You'll always have the same type and number of oscillators, the same filters and, even more crucially, you'll always have the same connections between those components.
Of course, this in itself isn't a bad thing. The very reason why synthesizers like the Minimoog exploded onto the music scene is that, unlike their modular ancestors, they were relatively quick and easy to use, since there were no patch cables. This speed and simplicity saw the non‑modular synthesizer usurping the modular through the late‑'70s and '80s in most pop music. On a dark stage with an impatient crowd, you probably don't want to spend 10 minutes fiddling with cables to get a sound a Pro One could do with a few easy adjustments.
The modular synthesizer trades this immediacy for power. A modular synth can be whatever you desire it to be, money and space permitting. Do you want three oscillators? Or six? Or 15? Two filters? A multi-mode filter? Two low‑pass and three high‑pass? How about a vocoder or a theremin? Perhaps you're a fan of a specific filter on a particular vintage Russian monosynth? Well, somewhere in the wild world of modular, the chances are that someone will have built a module that will satisfy your desires.
You configure the system you want, module by module and, in a very real sense, your modular synthesizer is never finished. You always have the possibility of adding a different filter, different oscillators or perhaps very bizarre individual modules that simply don't exist in the world of non‑modular analogues.
During the course of my research, I've chatted to many modular veterans, and the defining theme of those conversations is that the fundamental nature of modular synthesis is flux. Modulars synths are instruments that aren't fixed in the way most synthesizers are. Their owners are continuously adding and swapping modules, changing the reach and focus of their system, depending on their current tastes and goals.
Of course, there is absolutely nothing to stop one buying a modular system and never modifying it, never making any changes to the sound‑creation possibilities. But I haven't come across a singular modular owner so far who's followed this path. Tinkering is the key concept here — a far more active involvement with the bones of the instrument than in the normal player/keyboard relationship, which often progresses no further than selecting presets.
It may sound like traditional advertising hyperbole, but I feel I can say truthfully that the world of modular synthesis is actually only limited by your imagination.
Despite modular synthesis being such a niche market, a bewildering array of modular manufacturers confronts the newbie. Some of them, like Doepfer, Modcan and Synthesizers.com, manufacture a very broad range of modules, along with all the auxiliary equipment required to house and power them. This end of the business is the mainstream modular arena, and the manufacturers can supply anything from an individual component or patch cord up to entire, lunar‑eclipsing systems.
Then there is the more boutique end of the market, inhabited by companies such as Tiptop Audio, who only launched their first product (the Z5000 voltage‑controlled digital effects processor) in April 2008. These companies often don't cover the entire range of modules that the bigger manufacturers offer, instead preferring to limit themselves to more idiosyncratic and often quite wonderfully bizarre designs. For example, The Harvestman provide a modular version of the filter circuit from the Russian Polivoks duophonic synthesizer. They developed their module in collaboration with the original Polivoks designer, Vladimir Kuzmin. I wasn't kidding when I said if you desire some form of sound generation or mangling, there's probably a module out there that does it. And if there isn't now, there probably soon will be!
The next hurdle for the modular newbie to leap is that of format. Modular synthesizers come in different varieties of module size, patch‑lead type and power supply. The three most popular formats around at the moment are Eurorack, Moog/MOTM/Synthesizers.com and Frac rack. Can you use modules from one manufacturer in a different system? Well, it isn't impossible, as this email from Paul Schreiber of MOTM illustrates: "MOTM is almost the same height as Moog and Synthesizers.com, but about 3mm shorter. However, I use MOTM modules in Synthesizers.com wood cabinets all the time. I also sell MOTM‑995 Power Adapter that allows a .com supply/case to power MOTM modules.”
So it is definitely possible to mix and match, sometimes even within supposedly non‑compatible systems. However, for a beginner, sorting out the different power connectors, voltages and physical sizes, and perhaps even integrating differing patch-cord types, would be very daunting.
Therefore, it makes sense to work backwards here: if there's a particular module range you've seen that's inspired your dive into modular, the best thing would be to find out the format of that range and then base your first system around that. Remember, if you ever feel limited by your initial selection, there's nothing preventing you from buying different-format systems and plonking them next to each other to build a super‑modular, cross‑format beast.
Leaving the electronic issues of compatibility to one side, there's a simple question of personal preference. Frac rack format and Eurorack both typically use 3.5mm jacks to make their connections. MOTM and Synthesizers.com use 6.3mm (quarter‑inch) jacks, the same as on guitar leads. Bigger connectors need bigger sockets and consequently more rack space. This leads to big modules with plenty of space for Ben Grimm‑sized hands. These players might find the smaller Eurorack and Frac‑based systems cramped in comparison. Others prefer the smaller format, as it saves weight and space. This is, of course, totally subjective: how do you feel using each type of system? Do you find the smaller size of Doepfer gear fiddly and awkward or appealingly bijou? Have you got the space for that monster Synthesizers.com system you keep gazing at online?
And then we have the banana connector: a connector that some modular synthesists swear by. Because Banana plugs can have a socket mounted on the plug itself, it's possible to stack them, one on top of the other, thus letting you route one source to multiple destinations or vice versa.
Confusing, isn't it? Keeping that in mind, here's a quick survey of some current [at the time of writing] modular manufacturers.
Cwejman manufacture entire modular systems, including a shallower‑than‑normal rack housing that shows off their slimline modules. Their modules are highly regarded — as we've seen in numerous SOS reviews — but towards the pricier end of the market.
Sockets: 3.5mm jack.
Relative newcomers to the modular world, Tiptop are already generating quite a buzz (heh) with their Z3000 oscillator. They only make two modules at the moment — the Z3000 and the Z5000 digital signal processor — so they can't provide whole systems. You'd have to mix and match with compatible gear.
Sockets: 3.5mm jack.
Blacet have been in the game since 1978, and it shows. They have a mature range of modules, also available in kit form, which saves a packet if you're handy with a soldering iron. Because of their Frac rack format, you can fit a lot of modules in a very small space compared to, say, MOTM gear. However, if you have giant, sausage‑fingered hands this may not be an advantage.
Sockets: 3.5mm jack.
Synthesis Technology make the MOTM modular synthesizer system. They currently sell 23 modules, and you can construct a whole system with just MOTM gear. They pride themselves on their "no compromise” manufacturing: sealed pots, Switchcraft jacks, 3.2mm‑thick front panels. This, inevitably, has an effect on pricing, but there are cheaper kit options for the advanced tinkerer.
Format: MOTM is a format in itself, compatible with Oakley and Modcan B, and can be integrated with Synthesizer.com gear.
Sockets: 6.3mm jack.
Doepfer manufacture a massive range of modules, cases, sequencers and accessories. Their modules are reasonably priced and offer the beginner a vast choice, from bread‑and‑butter oscillators and filters to theremin and vocoder systems. Of particular interest for the impoverished beginner is the possibility of buying a Doepfer mini‑case and starting off with just a few modules.
Sockets: 3.5mm jack.
At the other end of the spectrum to Doepfer are Livewire, who currently manufacture only five modules. But what modules! If the idea of a Dalek Modulator or Dual Bissell Generator appeals to you, look no further.
Sockets: 3.5mm jack.
These Eurorack‑format manufacturers make some wonderfully‑named modules, including the Malgorithm (a voltage‑controlled bit‑crusher), the Zorlon Cannon (a "voltage‑controlled pseudo‑random pulse and pitched noise generator”) and the previously‑mentioned Polivoks filter. And how many other modular makers display 'Digital Audio Electronics' proudly on their web page?
Metalbox currently make 23 varied modules covering drum synthesis, audio mangling, sequencing and more. They don't do basic modules such as VCOs and VCAs. Metalbox's Michael Ford recommends mixing their gear with other Frac rack gear, such as Blacet, to build systems.
Sockets: 3.5mm (but banana are available as a special order).
If you're after a complete system, it's definitely worth checking out Modcan. They offer an extensive range of modules and, crucially for the beginner, pre‑assembled cases. They currently do two ranges of modules, the 'A' and the 'B'. The A‑series is Modcan's own format and measures 9 x 2.25 inches in size, while the B‑series is the same format as Synthesis Technology. With devices as beautiful as they are powerful, Modcan are modular masters.
Format: Own and MOTM.
Sockets: A‑series, banana; B‑series, 6.3mm.
Cyndustries offer most of their modules in Modcan 'A' format but, like a lot of modern modular makers, they're now offering selected modules, such as their Zeroscillator and Sawtooth Animator, in practically every format going. This is a great move and I'm sure it will boost sales to beginners who may only have one base system available.
Format: Mostly Modcan 'A'/mixed.
From modular veterans like Modcan we come to Mattson, who have just started to manufacture their own Mattson Mini Modular system. Like Wowa Cwejman, George Mattson has a pedigree in the synth world, having developed and produced the Syntar synth. Specifically designed to be low‑cost and tiny (hence the Mini part), it'll be very interesting to see how Mattson shape up in the modular market. There's a lot of power in a small space!
Often shortened in the modular community to 'dotcom' or '.com' format (which confused the hell out of me initially!). Roger Arrick of Synthesizers.com makes one of the biggest, most attractive and certainly most comprehensive modular systems available. In the Moog format, their gear is unashamedly no‑compromise, but they keep prices down by selling direct from their web site.
Manufacturing in the same format as Synthesizers.com, Curetronic manufacture a full range of modules and power supplies/cases, meaning that you could assemble your own Curetronic‑only system from scratch. Of particular note for synth‑heads is the C303 Multi‑VCF, which is based on the Steiner Parker Synthasystem filter.
British firm Analogue Systems make a full range of modules, from basic oscillators and filters through to the more esoteric RS370, a 'polyphonic harmonic generator' based around additive synthesis. They can sell you entire systems, and you may have seen Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead worshipping at the altar of one of their mammoth RS8000 Integrators. If you're in the UK you can get hands‑on before you buy. In their words, "we have a purpose-designed building with demo facilities, office and two stores.”
The similarly‑named Analogue Solutions are also British. They're perhaps best known for their Concussor system, which specialises in percussion synthesis. Featuring modules such as the BD88 (TR808‑flavour kick), BD99 (TR909‑flavour kick) and many others, the Concussor will let you recreate those classic analogue drum‑machine sounds without using up half your modular. But it's not just drum synths: Analogue Solutions also manufacture oscillators, filters and sequencer modules, so it's possible to build a very powerful modular with their gear.
Future Sound Systems
Another British company, FSS will make you any of their five modules in whatever format you require. And they're very affordable! Due to the small range, you'll have to mix and match with other manufacturers' gear but, like The Harvestman and Tiptop, they provide modules I've not seen elsewhere. I'm fascinated by the DC1 Decade Counter which, "takes a clock pulse (usually from a square‑wave LFO) and shares the clock to 10 outputs, sequentially counting through them.” Handy for rhythmic mayhem...
Format: You choose.
Sockets: You choose.
I was eager to find out about this Swiss company because, as their name implies, they make some monster systems. The System D features six VCOs, four Octal Subharmonic Oscillators, three VCFs, three Dual ENVs, two Triple Resonators, four LFOs and four VCAs, and weighs 70kg! One of Technosaurus's distinguishing design features is the placement of all the jack connections: separate from the knobby bits. Whether this is tidier or feels counter‑intuitive is, of course, down to you, but it is different.
Sockets: 6.3mm jack.
If you're feeling adventurous and are capable of handling a soldering iron, you may want to save yourself a bit of money by rolling your own modules. In that case, meet US company PAiA. PAiA (pronounced 'pie‑ya') have been in the synth business since 1967 and have a long pedigree of innovation (they made the first programmable drum machine) coupled with affordability. Their current P9700 Series modular system packs a lot of power into a small space, and at a tasty price. If you can solder… Also remember to budget for a UK power supply.
American manufacturers Plan B produce a huge range of modules, all in Eurorack format. As well as offering their own take on oscillators and filters (the Model 15 VCO being particularly highly regarded amongst modular heads I talked with), they also provide a lot of more esoteric modules, such as the Model 26, which apparently includes Boolean gate functions! Gnarly!
Don Buchla is, of course, one of the godfathers of synthesis (sorry). His pioneering work on the 1963 Buchla Music Box kick‑started electro‑acoustic music and opened non‑academic ears, too. Buchla gear has always tended towards the wild side of synthesis and the current modular, the 200e, continues that tradition. As Gordon Reid said in his review, "It's not a modular synthesizer as you would normally use that expression, nor is it an integrated synth, nor is it semi‑normalled in any conventional sense. It's a hybrid, but not in the same way as other hybrid analogue/digital synths. Confused? I don't blame you.” (/sos/dec05/articles/buchla200e.htm).
Sockets: Banana for CV, 3.5mm for audio.
If you've made it this far, there's a chance that you've been put off the whole modular synth idea. But don't be! You don't have to be a modular expert to dip your toe in the water, as all the manufacturers and distributors I talked to are supremely helpful, friendly people.
In the course of researching this article, I fired off the same general inquiry to all the firms above and I was very chuffed to get replies from (nearly) every company within a couple of days. I'm not famous and I didn't mention that I was writing about modulars for Sound On Sound, so I don't think I was receiving a special level of customer care. I think the modular firms genuinely try hard to help newbies like me.
So if you're worried that you won't know what goes with what, what fits in where, what power supply works with what modules, remember Douglas Adams' words: DON'T PANIC. A few phone calls or emails and you'll find people only too happy to help you through the whole process.
Now: let's move on to how I chose my own modular system!
Like most 21st century shoppers, I did my modular research on‑line. I lurked in many forums watching the often ribald exchanges between modular gearhounds, folks far, far more knowledgeable than me. The forum I found the most helpful and least macho was www.electro‑music.com, so much so that I even de‑lurked and asked a lot of modular newbie questions.
I also spent hours scouring manufacturers' web sites, peering at JPEGs of shiny wonder and listening to sound clips. To be honest, the sound clips didn't help much, as every company serves up an equally impressive array of bleeps, squawks and bloops. Far more useful were the pics of assembled systems, particularly if there was a human in the shot to give a sense of scale. And then I realised something: money wasn't my uppermost concern!
I didn't have an unlimited budget. But more importantly, I didn't have unlimited space either. Some of the Synthesizers.com‑sized modular systems I'd been gazing at for hours on‑line simply wouldn't fit into my humble studio space, even if I could afford them. So, with not a little regret, I crossed the Moog‑sized modulars off my list.
So how about one of the Frac rack‑based systems? They're smaller, and there are a few manufacturers doing them too: Blacet, Metalbox and others. But the longer I spent looking around, the more I decided that if I went Frac, I'd miss out on some esoteric modules: The Harvestman and Tiptop in particular. And they were… Eurorack!
Looking at Eurorack systems, the biggest manufacturer is Doepfer, so I naturally gravitated towards them. At the same time, I was asking a lot of questions on net forums about Doepfer and I was slightly surprised at some of the reactions I got. There seems to be a degree of snobbery in the modular world against Doepfer, perhaps because they're so large, perhaps because they don't have the indie cachet of the tiny, shed‑based companies. However, I also found many experienced modular users on‑line who rated Doepfer highly, particularly for beginners like me. If I went with a Doepfer‑based setup, I could start off with a simple system and then add modules from The Harvestman, Tiptop, Analogue Systems, Analogue Solutions, Cwejman and Livewire.
Of course, I could have gone for a Eurorack system from Analogue Systems, Cwejman or Analogue Solutions but, being a nervous beginner, I was very attracted to the massive Doepfer range. I knew I could assemble an entire modular just from one manufacturer, including a reasonably priced case. Where I'd go from there, who knows?
I thought that deciding on the base system would be a major milestone in my modular journey. I was wrong. As soon as I'd decided, I was faced with the next step: which modules for this initial base system? I went back to my non‑modular synths to help work this out. First of all, I'd need:
- Some sound sources: oscillators, and perhaps a noise generator, to synthesize percussive noises. Or, er, wind.
- Filters to change the tone of the sources.
- Envelopes to shape the sound, in terms of at least amplitude and tone.
- Finally, some form of modulation with which to swirl everything about: low frequency oscillators.
I sketched all this out on a piece of paper, just the skeleton of a very basic system. This was my old‑school way of working out what I needed in terms of a minimal starter system. It appears that my 2HB and paper has now been rendered obsolete by web sites such as https://mega.modularplanner.co.uk, where you can drag and drop various modules around to your heart's desire. The virtual systems you can assemble via the slick interface would make even Wendy Carlos drool! There's a very similar planner on the Doepfer site itself, and that's where I went after my initial wobbly sketches.
I spent hour upon hour configuring systems via the Doepfer planner. I went mad and built systems I couldn't possibly afford (or house). They were the work of a madman, modular monsters from the id. Then I got scared and tried to build tiny systems around Doepfer's smallest housings. They would have been less powerful and flexible than some of my existing non‑modulars!
In the end, I boiled it down to what I thought was a pretty reasonable system so, trembling, I emailed EMIS, the UK distributor of Doepfer, to see if I had chosen well. After exchanging a few emails, I phoned Andy at EMIS, who was so friendly and helpful that he made the whole process completely painless. I'd gone a little wild with a couple of my choices and lacked some bread‑and‑butter modules (multiples!), which would hobble my patchwork. Andy soon set me straight and, with his guidance, my modular was configured!
A100 Low Cost Case: I went for two of these wooden cases to house my system as they're considerably cheaper than Doepfer's normal cases. I think they look nicer too.
A107 Multi‑type Morphing Filter: This was an expensive module but I was attracted to it because it features 36 different types of filter in the one module! And it can morph between them. Of course, functions like morph time and filter selection can be controlled by external sources.
A110 Standard VCO: I went for just two oscillators to start with, planning to maybe add more by Cwejman or other manufacturers as funds permitted.
A115 Audio Divider: This module produces up to four sub‑octaves from whatever you feed it.
A116 Waveform Processor: Quite a strange module that took me a while to get my head around, the A116 takes existing waveforms and changes them with clipping and asymmetrical amplification. All of this shape‑changing can be modulated, of course!
A118 Noise/Random: A noise generator plus a random voltage generator, all in the one module, which is pretty handy.
A120 24db VCF (Moog): A very Moogy‑sounding filter: basic equipment.
A130 VCA (Linear): A simple amplifier recommended for control voltages (though you don't have to use it for that alone).
A131 VCA (Logarithmic): A simple amplifier recommended for audio, although, again, you can always stick whatever through it and see what happens.
A132 Dual VCA: A small module featuring two simple amps. Not as flexible as the A130 or A131 but very handy.
A134 VC Pan: A voltage‑controlled panning module or crossfader, depending how you hook it up.
A135 VC Mixer: A mixer that can handle up to four mono audio inputs. The voltage control means you can modulate the levels of the inputs in quite bizarre ways.
A143‑2 Quad ADSR: I had to get this module: four envelope generators in a very space‑saving module. A plus for me is that you can trigger each envelope individually or simultaneously from one gate.
A143‑3 Quad LFO: Can you tell I love cheap, multi‑unit modules? Couldn't resist this one: it crams four low frequency oscillators into one module.
A148 Dual S&H: This doodad samples what you feed into it and generates a voltage from that. So if you feed in noise, you get randomness, if you feed in an LFO you can get rising and falling bloops.
A150 Dual VC Switch: Two switches you can control with external voltage. With each switch, you could flip between the two inputs using an LFO, or whatever you like.
A160 Clock Divider & A161 Clock Sequencer: These two modules were recommended by Andy at EMIS, and I'm so glad I followed his suggestion. Basically, using just these two small modules you can set up rhythmic patterns. I thought I had to invest in one of the more expensive sequencer modules to do that, but these two modules do the job of providing simple rhythms.
A162 Dual Trigger Delay: Another twofer. Each delay can, er, delay a trigger and even change its length.
A170 Dual Slew Limiter: Sounds more complex than it is: the classic effect a slew limiter can produce is portamento. You press two different notes and the module smoothly slides from one to the other.
A180 & A181 Multiples: These are helper modules. Want to have white noise going to three VCAs? Or send the same LFO output to more than one VCO? That's what multiples are for.
A185 Bus Access Module: This module can reduce patch‑lead spaghetti because it accesses the Doepfer bus and can feed one input gate/CV to any other modules on the same bus. So instead of having separate leads all feeding your oscillators the same pitch, this module can do that without any leads.
A199 Spring Reverb: I love spring reverbs. I love the way they sound on synths and drum machines, and that marvellous sproingy noise they make when you hit them. So what could be better than a modular spring reverb?
The morning my modular arrived, it was like being a kid at Christmas again. I carefully un‑boxed my new baby, took some pics and then just gazed at it for a while. It was so... shiny! So many knobs and patch sockets. Andy at EMIS had shipped my modular with the modules all installed, partially so he could test them, and also because it was the most secure way to ship the modules.
So I carried both cases into my studio, connected up the audio outs and patched my first sound: a very simple VCO going into a low‑pass filter. As I turned up the cutoff frequency, the sound of my oscillator started appearing. It was so exciting!
Next, I hooked up my old Moog Rogue (my first synthesizer) to the modular so that I could actually play it musically. This was a real blast from the past; I couldn't remember the last time I'd used CV/Gate leads. Once I got everything working, I spent a good few hours just creating very basic synth sounds and getting into the patching.
The surprising part of this period is that I'd expected modular patching to be a cerebral process. I thought that creating a patch would be a very logical, dispassionate journey, entailing many stops and starts in order to figure out how to achieve each element. I couldn't have been more wrong. That first day and in the months since, I've kept returning to my modular, as it is, without any equivocation, the most fun synth to use I've ever owned.
But my first modular steps weren't all trouble‑free. The A107 morphing filter refused to make a predictable sound no matter how I hooked it up. It buzzed and distorted in a pleasing but unalterable manner. As a newbie, I thought it must be something I was doing, so I kept tinkering with it. Finally, I bit the bullet, phoned up Andy at EMIS and he told me to return it and he'd give it an experienced once‑over. Once he'd done this, he confirmed that it wasn't my inexperience, the unit was faulty. Within a week, I had a flawless morphing filter that sounded absolutely stunning.
I could have saved myself a lot of time if I'd simply phoned Andy as soon as I had a problem, but because I'm a modular beginner, I felt embarrassed. The moral is: do not be afraid to ask for help. Even if you've been playing synths for over 25 years, as I have, you can't be expected to magically be an expert on modular synthesis. In fact, the longer your experience, the more you may have to un‑learn from years of using permanently configured synths.
Finally, I want to try to dispel some common misconceptions about Modular Synths.
Modular Myth 1: they're too geeky — and you have to be a proper synth geek just to use one. I now believe the opposite. In fact, I would say that if you wanted to learn about synthesis from first elements in the easiest, most enjoyable way possible, modular synthesis is for you. I would definitely recommend modulars to absolute synth beginners.
The essence of the modular synth is improvisation and speed. When I'm patching, I'm not even thinking consciously about what I'm doing. I'm just plugging things in all over the place, listening to what happens (which is often not what I expected) and then building on that. The sheer joy of modular systems is that pretty much anything can go into anything. On conventional, non‑modular synths, this is untrue.
Modular Myth 2: they're too expensive. So many people said this to me when I was researching which system to buy. My system cost around $4000, which, yes, could be called expensive. But for that money, I've got a powerful true analogue synthesizer that is also capable of extensive sound processing. The irony is that some virtual analogue synthesizers cost far more than my real one! They may have the edge in outrageous polyphony, shedloads of effects and patch recall, but I believe my system has the edge in tone. It sounds wonderful. And the quality of that sound is inspirational, far more than any VA or soft synth.
Modular Myth 3: they're only for prog‑heads. I find this the most bizarre modular myth. Just because quite a few prog rockers have embraced modular synthesis, I can't see how that makes them off‑limits to hip‑hop, indie or pop artists. But I guess the image of a hippy worshipping at a modular shrine, LEDs blinking away, is a hard one to shake. Which is a shame, because if you're a musician working in any modern electronic musical genre, modular synthesis is for you. The palette of new sounds, new processing techniques and serendipitous discoveries simply cannot be matched by non‑modular synthesizers.
If this article makes me sound like I've become a modular synthesis evangelist, that's because I have. What started as a risky experiment for me has become one of the most enjoyable parts of my musical life. I can lose hours patching sounds on my little system. And I still have some spare space for new modules — who knows what capabilities they'll add?
In a relatively small space, I have an immensely flexible, inspiring audio tool and musical instrument. If you're a keyboardist, a synthesist or simply interested in the possibilities of sound generation and processing, there has never been a better time to go modular! Do it!
Just to confuse matters further, there are now very respected semi‑modular analogue synths like the Macbeth M5 and Cwejman S1 MkII, both of which have been reviewed in SOS. These are far more patchable than non‑modular synths but unlike true modulars, you can't swap out or change the basic circuits of the synthesizer. However, the power these synths offer should not be underestimated simply because they are inherently less configurable.
In a mad, mad corner all of its own, we have the Metasonix S1000 Wretch Machine (reviewed in the July 2008 issue of SOS). It's definitely semi‑modular and it's definitely a synthesizer, but this valve‑based monster is also definitely not for the faint‑hearted and it perhaps isn't the synth to go for if you're a beginner at modulars. Metasonix have also just announced three Eurorack modules at the January NAMM Show.
I personally would also class Synthetic Music Systems' MARS and P7 (reviewed in June 2007's SOS) as semi‑modular, but this is far more arguable, as the units are pretty unique, based on discrete sections each incorporated into a 19‑inch rack unit complete with power supply. However, the flexibility of a true modular in terms of range and possible combinations of modules (particularly from other manufacturers) isn't comparable. But, as I said, it's debatable and plenty of people would class the SMS as a proper modular system.
If you want an example of what can happen when someone falls totally in love with modular synthesis, meet Lester Barnes' Fat Bastard. In Lester's own words: "In my big system, I wanted a setup that could be as powerful and wide‑ranging in sound as possible and be used in many different ways: thus 50 dedicated VCOs, 24 channels of MIDI‑CV, six sequencers, digital modules, many filters, with about 30 different designs, and so on.”
I met Lester on www.electro‑music.com, and that was where I first saw the pictures of his awesome modular system. But Barnes isn't simply a fetishist for electro gear: he's a successful working composer, arranger and producer with many TV and advertising credits to his name. I asked him for any advice he could give me, a total beginner, about modular synthesis and these are his tips:
- Don't expect a modular system to be polyphonic, because it's not a viable option: they work best doing monophonic lines.
- Take time to learn and understand signal flow and about CV/gates and how they work (SOS's 'Synth Secrets' series is your friend!).
- Some of the manufacturers differ in the time they take to get your module to you. This can vary from days to years! Ask around.
Finally, I asked him why, as a musician, he valued modular synthesis enough to construct such a gargantuan system. He replied, "It's a unique and open‑ended way to make complex sounds and process audio with the best‑sounding results.” So the next time someone tries to tell you that modular synthesis is only for prog rockers or electro geeks, point them Lester's way: www.lesterbarnes.com.
The breaking news as I was writing this article was from MOTU. Their new plug‑in, Volta, basically turns any compatible audio interface into a MIDI to CV/Gate converter. You open the plug‑in as you would a normal soft synth, send it MIDI notes or CC data and then, by assigning the relevant outputs on your interface, get handy CV voltages to drive your analogue gear.
As a bonus, Volta will also apparently calibrate your wobbly‑pitched gear in a one‑button operation. You can also run multiple instances of Volta, and each features tempo‑synced LFOs, pattern and trigger sequencers.
If Volta delivers everything it promises, it's going to make bridging the modern DAW world and the analogue domain much easier, perhaps encouraging more people to investigate modular synthesis.
Most modular synths are based around CV/Gate. If you want to trigger an envelope, you send it a gate pulse. If you want to get a pitch out of an oscillator, you send it a control voltage. But you can also send a control voltage to a filter, making the cutoff frequency slide up and down (basically like turning a tone control up and down). Or maybe you'll use a gate to step through filters in a Doepfer A107 morphing filter? That's the beauty of modulars: you decide where you'll stick your CVs and gates, you decide what they control.
For simply playing a modular, you've got three options. First, you could buy a keyboard that sends out CV/Gate, like the Doepfer A100CGK or Analogue Systems Sorceror. Plug in the leads and you're set. Or you could buy a MIDI to CV/Gate converter like the Kenton Pro Solo or Encore Expressionist. That would let you hook up your favourite MIDI controller keyboard to your modular, with the converter between the two. Finally, you could install a dedicated MIDI to CV/Gate module in your system, such as the Analogue Systems RS140, and then plug your MIDI keyboard straight into that. I went for the external converter option, as I wanted to save my modular rack‑space for noisemaking!