Modular Synthesizers 101

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Modular synthesizers are fascinating music tools with a wide range of sounds. They’re not only important in music history, but they also changed how we create and play music.

Every modular setup is special, just like the person who made it.

Each one is made up of different parts that work together in intricate ways. This shows the creator’s artistic vision. Even though these systems might seem hard to understand, they encourage us to learn more about how they work and what they can do.

We’ll explore the basics of modular synthesis, from the main parts to the more detailed methods of connecting them to create new sounds. By looking closely at the art of modular synthesis, we find an engaging story that combines the beauty of the various types of synthesizers we know and love..

Historical Overview

In the mid 1900s, Harald Bode, a German engineer, made the first modular synthesizer.

The first modular synthesizer created by Bode was the “Warbo Formant Orgel” in 1937. It was an innovative electronic instrument that featured a keyboard and several modules that could be interconnected to generate a variety of sounds.

The modules included oscillators, filters, and amplifiers, which were the foundational elements of many modern synthesizers. This groundbreaking instrument played a significant role in the development of electronic music, influencing future designs of modular synthesizers.

Warbo Formant Orgel
The Warbo Formant Orgel Modular Synthesizer

This was a big step in music history and led to the making of famous systems like the Moog synthesizer and Buchla’s Modular Electronic Music System in the 1960s. These machines had lots of parts that let musicians make a wide range of sounds.

In the middle of the 1970s, a company from Japan called Roland made popular modular systems like the System 100, System 700, and System 100m. But by the end of the 1970s, these big machines were not used as much.

Smaller, easier-to-use keyboard synths took their place. But in the late 1990s, modular synthesizers became popular again. Musicians liked the unique, natural sound they made and how they could control the sound directly.

Today, modular synthesizers can work together because of standards like the Eurorack format. This means that parts from different companies can be used together. This has led to a wide range of options and creativity for musicians.

Companies keep making new and different parts that work with these standards. Musicians can pick and choose the parts they need for their unique sound. As a result, the modular synthesizer keeps changing and attracting new musicians with its complex design and rich sounds.

How Modular Works

Let’s get to know the different module types. These are the heart of these adaptable instruments. Picking the right modules is key for musicians and sound engineers who want to make unique sounds.

Each module has a specific job in making patches, handling signals, controlling voltage, and making sounds.

Think of sound-making modules as the first step of a modular setup. Voltage-Controlled Oscillators (VCOs) are key in making basic sounds. They change pitch based on voltage control. Noise makers and digital sound sources also add to the mix of available sounds.

Signal handling modules, like Voltage-Controlled Filters (VCFs) and Amplifiers (VCAs), then shape and tweak these sounds. This adds character and movement to the sound.

Control modules, like Low-Frequency Oscillators (LFOs) and Envelope Generators (EGs), are essential for lively modulation. They change things like pitch or filter cutoff over time. These changes make a modular system more expressive.

Utility modules give extra functions like mixing, signal routing, and level changing. These are key for making complicated patches. They make sure signals mix well and are properly changed within the synth.

Logic and sequencing modules play a role in timing and arranging sounds. This allows for making rhythmic patterns and melodies.

A Modular Setup With One Patch Cable

Patching Techniques

Modular synthesis is a cool way for musicians to make unique sounds. It involves connecting different modules in different ways. This is called patching.

Patching is not just about knowing how the sound travels but also about making creative connections for new sounds. Playing with voltage control is key for making changes to the sound.

The basic idea of modular synthesis is the path of the sound. Each connection can change the sound in many ways. By trying out different patch cables, you can make small changes or big changes to the sound.

This way of making sound invites lots of hands-on experiments, leading to exciting and unusual music.

Keeping your cables tidy and organized is very important for patching. It’s a good idea to use different lengths and colors of cables so you can see clearly what you’re doing. This also helps when you need to solve problems.

Patching is all about using voltage control. By changing the voltage to different modules, you can make small changes to the sound. You can change things like pitch, tone, and rhythm. This is why modular synthesizers are so flexible.

In the end, patching is about experimenting. Musicians need to be open to trying out new patches that might not give the results they expect. This process of trying, failing, and discovering helps keep modular synthesis exciting and ever-changing.

Modular Synth Control Methods

Synth control methods help musicians make unique sounds by managing how voltage flows in their modular synthesizers. These methods are very important in performances and designing sounds. They let musicians interact with their instruments in dynamic ways.

CV/Gate is a basic control method. “CV” stands for Control Voltage and “Gate” stands for, well, Gate.

In simple terms, CV lets you change things like pitch, filter cutoff, or modulation depth. The Gate signal, on the other hand, triggers envelopes or other events.

Another key control method is converting MIDI/CV. This helps bridge the gap between digital MIDI equipment and analog modular systems.

Converters turn MIDI messages into CV and Gate signals. This means a keyboard, sequencer, or DAW can control a modular synth. This method combines the best parts of digital and analog, giving precise timing and extended control options.

The Ribbon Controller is another way to control synths. It’s a touch-sensitive surface that changes the CV signals based on finger movement. This allows for unique and fluid changes in pitch or modulation.

Touch Interfaces have changed how musicians interact with synthesizers. They can sense multiple touch points and pressure, making it easier and more natural to shape sounds. They often have a screen and can control many parameters at once.

A more modern control method is Wi-Fi Control. This lets users adjust parameters, sequence patterns, and sync with other equipment wirelessly. It provides a tidy and flexible control environment. These control methods really enhance the modular synthesizer experience.

Modular Touch Controller Closeup With a Hand Playing It

Integration With DAWs

Making music with modular synthesizers and Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) is a big part of today’s music creation.

This mix of old and new allows musicians to use the best of both worlds. They can play with the hands-on fun of modular synths, and also use the powerful tools of digital recording and editing.

As music tech gets better, being able to use a DAW with a modular synth has become very important.

One of the big bonuses of mixing these two systems is that it makes the process of making music smoother. Musicians can use DAWs to control signals, change settings automatically, and use digital effects on the raw sounds made by the synths.

Using MIDI is key here, as it lets the DAW talk to the modular gear. This means you can play notes and adjust sounds with great accuracy, which is vital for modern music making.

The way we record music with modular synths has also gotten better thanks to DAWs. Musicians can record lots of different takes, change the audio afterwards, and mix sounds from a synth with digital instruments in the DAW. This gives a lot of room to play around and fine-tune sounds, which can be hard to do with just a synth.

Another great feature is the ability to sync up the synth with the DAW. The DAW can send timing signals to make sure the tempo is in sync and that the sequences from the synth line up with the other digital parts of a track. This makes the music sound tight and well put-together, whether it’s being made in a studio or played live.

It brings together the free-flowing creativity of the modular synth with the structured process of digital music making.

Building Your First Modular Setup

Choosing the right parts for your first modular build is very important. It can shape a musician’s setup and the sounds they create.

Modular synthesizers can be built in several standardized formats. Here are some of the most common ones:

  1. Eurorack: This is by far the most popular format for modular synthesizers. It was started by the company Doepfer in the mid-90s. The modules are 3U high (1U = 1.75 inches) and the width is measured in horizontal pitch (HP), where 1HP = 0.2 inches.
  2. Buchla: Named after its creator Don Buchla, this format is less standardized compared to Eurorack. The modules are also 3U high, but the width is measured in units that are unique to the Buchla format.
  3. Serge: The Serge format was created by Serge Tcherepnin in the 70s. The modules are 4U high, and the width is also measured in units that are unique to the Serge format.
  4. MU (Moog Unit): Also known as 5U, this format is based on the original Moog modules. The modules are, as the name suggests, 5U high and the width is measured in inches.
  5. FracRak: This format was created by the company PAiA. The modules are 3U high and the width is measured in inches.
  6. 4U: This is a format that’s based on the Serge and Buchla formats, but with some differences. The modules are 4U high and the width is measured in HP.
  7. MOTM (Modular Of The Millenium): This format was created by Synthesis Technology. The modules are 5U high and the width is measured in units that are unique to the MOTM format.

These are just a few examples, and there are many other lesser-known formats out there as well.

Several Different Modular Formats Compared

It’s also important to note that the different formats are not compatible with each other due to differences in power supply, signal level, and physical size.

Now, what are the very first modules a complete beginner should consider buying for their first modular synthesizer setup? Here are some to consider:

  1. Case – This holds your modules and provides a power supply. Doepfer A-100LC3 or Tiptop Audio Mantis are good choices for beginners.
  2. Oscillator/VCO (Voltage Controlled Oscillator) – The foundation of any synth sound. Good options are Mutable Instruments Plaits or Intellijel Dixie II+.
  3. Filter/VCF (Voltage Controlled Filter) – This shapes the sound generated by the oscillator. Mutable Instruments Ripples or WMD/SSF Pole-Zero are good choices.
  4. Envelope Generator – This controls the shape of the sound over time. Mutable Instruments Tides or Make Noise Maths are popular choices.
  5. VCA (Voltage Controlled Amplifier) – This controls the volume of the sound. Mutable Instruments Tides or Intellijel Quad VCA are good options.
  6. Mixer – This combines signals from your modules. Mutable Instruments Shades or Doepfer A-138 are recommended.
  7. Power Supply – This powers your modules. Make sure it provides enough power for your setup. Tiptop Audio uZeus or Doepfer A-100 DIY Kit are good choices.
  8. Sequencer – This generates patterns of notes or control voltages. Mutable Instruments Marbles or Make Noise Rene are great choices.
  9. Effects – These add extra flavor to your sound. Mutable Instruments Clouds or Strymon Magneto are good choices.
  10. MIDI to CV Converter – This allows you to control your modular synth with a standard MIDI keyboard. Mutable Instruments Yarns or Doepfer A-190-3 are recommended.

Remember, the modular synth world is vast and everyone’s journey is unique. These are just starting points to get you going.

Popular Modular Synthesizer Brands

Famous brands have each added their own touch to these key modules. They’ve set the bar high and opened up lots of possibilities for making different sounds.

Some makers are known for their high-quality products, new ideas, and impact on the modular synth scene.

When we look at modular synthesizers, we see many top brands in the marketplace.

Each of these brands adds important parts to electronic music production. They stand out because of their wide range of modules, creative sound design, strong performance, up-to-date industry trends, and good user feedback.

Here are some popular brands you can choose from:

  1. Doepfer Musikelektronik
  2. Mutable Instruments
  3. Make Noise
  4. Intellijel Designs Inc.
  5. WMD (William Mathewson Devices)
  6. Strymon
  7. Pittsburgh Modular Synthesizers
  8. Roland Corporation
  9. Analogue Solutions
  10. Synthrotek
  11. Bastl Instruments
  12. Verbos Electronics
  13. Sputnik Modular
  14. Tiptop Audio
  15. MFB

Modular Benefits and Drawbacks

Why do musicians and sound designers gravitate towards modular synthesis? It is popular because it lets you create your own unique sound.

With a modular synthesizer, you can experiment and create music in ways that you can’t with regular synthesizers. You can connect different modules to make music that fits your style and how you like to work.

Modular synthesis is like a playground for making music.

It’s perfect for those who love to try new things. You can plug in cables, turn knobs, and flip switches to see what sounds you can discover. Plus, there are so many modules to choose from. This means you can always add something new to your setup to keep things interesting.

Moreover, using a modular synthesizer helps you learn about music in a deep way.

You can understand how sound works and how to make electronic music. This can be really useful when you’re performing live or recording in a studio, as you can create complex and changing sounds.

But, it’s not all fun and games… There are drawbacks to getting into modular, as well.

  1. Learning Curve: Modular synthesizers can be challenging to learn and understand, especially for beginners. It requires knowledge about different modules and how they interact with each other.
  2. Cost: Modular synthesizers can be significantly more expensive than traditional synthesizers. Each module needs to be bought separately, and the cost can add up quickly.
  3. Size and Portability: Modular synthesizers, especially larger systems, can be quite bulky and not easily portable.
  4. Time-Consuming: Building and setting up patches on a modular synthesizer can be a lengthy process.
  5. Lack of Presets and Patch Memory: Unlike digital synthesizers, modular ones typically don’t have preset sounds, which means you have to build every sound from scratch. Further, most modular synths do not offer the ability to save or recall patches. Once you unplug the patch cables, that particular configuration and sound are gone.
  6. Instability: Analog modules can sometimes be unstable or unpredictable, leading to slight variations in sound over time.

But don’t let those hold you back from experimenting in the world of modular synthesizers. It can be really fun, engaging and fulfilling.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some of the most frequent questions you’ll find relating to modular synthesizers:

How Do Modular Synthesizers Differ From Fixed-Architecture Synthesizers in Terms of Sound Design Flexibility and Live Performance?

Modular synthesizers offer enhanced sound design flexibility, with patch complexity allowing for infinite possibilities in sound exploration. Live performance benefits from intuitive control and diverse performance techniques, surpassing fixed-architecture counterparts.

Can Modular Synthesizers Be Used in Conjunction With Acoustic Instruments, and if So, What Are Some Effective Methods for Integration?

Yes, modular synthesizers can complement acoustic instruments through hybrid setups, utilizing acoustic triggers and signal processing for cross-genre fusion. Effective integration often employs improvisational strategies, enhancing live performances with dynamic, textured soundscapes.

What Are the Considerations for Power Supply and Voltage Compatibility When Assembling Modules From Different Manufacturers in a Modular Synthesizer?

When assembling modules from diverse manufacturers, consider voltage standards, module compatibility, and power consumption. Ensure bus boards align with safety precautions and the power supply meets the required specifications for optimal performance.

How Do Artists Typically Go About Transporting Modular Synthesizers for Performances, Given Their Intricate and Often Delicate Nature?

Artists transport their instruments using custom cases with travel racks designed for shock protection, ensuring patch preservation. Effective cable management is also essential to maintain the delicate nature of the equipment during transit.

Are There Any Notable Musicians or Composers Known for Pioneering the Use of Modular Synthesizers in Genres Outside of Electronic Music?

Keith Emerson’s innovation, Stevie Wonder’s exploration, and Morton Subotnick’s revolution expanded modular synthesizers beyond electronic music. Suzanne Ciani’s performances and Robert Moog’s legacy further cemented their influence across various musical genres.

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