Eurorack modular synthesis

Eurorack is a modular synthesis format that has expanded enormously in the last five years or so. I started playing around with some modules about 18 months ago, initially as a way to get some more analogue filters into my home studio set up. Since then, I’ve become fascinated by Eurorack as a phenomenon comprising not only a set of technical standards and practices, but also a worldwide community of module producers and users, with its own terminology and cultural norms. Below is a recent production that makes extensive use of my own Eurorack set up.

With the straight to video disaster movie of the UK’s pre-Brexit meltdown consuming so much airspace, there is comfort to be had in a system that originated in continental Europe, which is profoundly internationalist, and which enables radically different elements to happily coexist and interact. The rise of Eurorack is also a good example of how technological change can move in surprising directions; a case study of how dead media can come back to life.

In the 1960s, when the first electronic voltage controlled sound synthesizers were developed by companies such as Moog, Buchla and EMS, most of these systems were modular. In a modular system, different audio generating and processing functions are performed by separate modules mounted in a rack. The user manually links these together into the desired order using patch cables. This type of design is extremely flexible, allowing for experimentation with non-standard signal routings and bespoke systems.

Back in the 1960s, the market for these unwieldy, complex, expensive systems was limited however. As synthesizer manufacturers sought commercial viability, they began to produce simpler, more portable and affordable instruments, designed around the needs of musicians. These machines hardwired synthesis elements into a fixed order, dispensing with the need for patch cables, and reducing the level of technical knowledge required to programme them. The Minimoog was the archetype of this shift, as documented in painstaking detail by Pinch and Rocco in their 2004 book Analog Days. A small, portable, all-in-one instrument, the Minimoog prioritised ease of use over the flexibility of Moog’s earlier modular systems. With its stable tuning and built-in keyboard, it fitted into Western musical conventions, and had wide appeal to musicians. Thousands of units were sold, and its basic design became the dominant form of the synthesizer from the 1970s onwards. Most classic machines follow its template: the Arp Odyssey, Sequential Prophet 5 and Pro 1, Roland’s SH series, Jupiters and Junos, and later classic digital synths such as the Yamaha DX7, Roland D50 and Korg M1 all have a keyboard attached to a more-or-less fixed sequence of sound generating and shaping elements. As Pinch and Rocco (1998, p.27) observe:

“The story of the analogue synthesizer is like that of many technologies. One meaning stabilises, and the other meanings slowly vanish or play a smaller role within niche markets.”

Thus by the mid 1980s, modular had been pushed to the margins of music technology. As the first generation of digital FM and PCM-based synths gave way to virtual analogue technologies in the 1990s, the dominance of keyboard-based synthesizers continued. Even with the introduction of Synthesis Technology’s ‘Mother Of The Modulars’ (MOTM) system in the mid 1990s, and the invention of Eurorack around the same time in the form of Doepfer’s A100 range, these systems were initially niche products aimed at a minority of devoted synthesis enthusiasts.

So why, against the grain of the stabilised form of the synthesizer, has Eurorack modular become so popular?

One factor appears to be how the format makes modular synthesis more accessible due to its efficiencies of size and cost. As a 2014 press release from NAMM (the US National Association of Music Manufacturers) puts it:

“Boutique Eurorack modular synthesizers were until recently considered ‘fringe’ but are now gaining traction in the mainstream as a relatively inexpensive way to pack a lot of functionality into a small space.” (NAMM, 2014)

It is worth noting that Eurorack is not the highest quality format available for modular synthesis. Its advantages are more prosaic: modest size, portability, and relatively low cost. Compared to full size modular systems, Eurorack enables even quite small systems to function as complex instruments. The techno producer Surgeon, for example, has recently been performing live sets using a Eurorack rig specifically designed to be small enough to fit into the dimensions of aircraft carry-on luggage.

The compact size of Eurorack seems key to its success. Shown here is an Intellijel uVCA module, which fits two voltage controlled amplifiers with bias and exponential-linear shape controls into a panel that is only 30mm wide. Note the use of mini-jack sockets for patching, and the tiny surface mount components just visible on the circuit board.

In this respect, Eurorack has an uncanny echo of the Minimoog’s emphasis on portability and convenience. Modules are often rated in terms of size: valued for offering a lot of functionality in a small space, or criticised for being too bulky. Erica synths’ Pico range and the company 2hp make a virtue out of slimline dimensions, squeezing maximum synthesis out of minimum space. The small size and low cost of Eurorack has been aided by surface mount circuit production technology and automated production. The video below, of Mutable Instruments modules being assembled at a factory in France, is revealing.

Eurorack has also risen to prominence in the context of networked computation – somewhat ironically for a format in which analogue signals are so crucial. With consumption increasingly shifting online, Eurorack has the perfect form factor. Small modules are easy to send via postal services, as compared to bulky and heavy keyboard synths. Many retailers operate primarily or solely by mail order, reducing the costs of premises and staffing. A thriving second hand market makes use of online forums, trading sites and payment systems. As vintage analogue synthesizers have become increasingly rare, costly and fragile, Eurorack provides a much simpler, cheaper and less troublesome alternative.

So there seems to be a kind of double shift driving Eurorack: on one side, an infrastructure of networked computing, online forums, web stores and computer controlled manufacturing; and on the other, a resurgence of interest in analogue, hands-on and experimental designs for electronic instruments. To quote Pinch and Rocco again:

“The synthesizer’s stabilisation as a keyboard instrument, while an attempt to increase its versatility, and a major step in allowing wide distribution and maintaining its commercial viability, may have begun the process of delimiting its creative freedom.” (ibid.)

Creative freedom is where modular really comes into its own. Its resurgence, in the form of Eurorack, can be understood as a kind of rebellion against the dominant paradigm in music technology. With modular, the stabilised form of the synthesizer is pulled apart and folded  inside out – literally, with patch points pushing signals from the inside to the outside of the box – opening up more space for experimentation. The media theorist Wolfgang Ernst (2012, p.184) suggests that all media technologies have this kind of experimental potential:

“All such mass media as the phonograph, kinematograph, radio, and electronic television were first developed for experimental research. Media are measuring devices, and as such they are scientific, analytical apparatuses…The public-use “synthetic” mass media represent a step from such measuring devices to worlds of mass media, as we often approach them, but we are able to also analytically approach the reverse experience: to go back to the experimentality of such machines.”

The modular renaissance can be understood as precisely this: a return to the experimentality of synthesizers. Indeed, some of the most popular Eurorack modules have high levels of indeterminacy built into their design, such as the Make Noise Maths module, which can generate and process control voltages, mix and slew signals, act as a level comparator, an envelope follower, a complex LFO, perform logic operations, and serve as a makeshift oscillator. With these kinds of designs, a degree of experimentation is required to operate them.

Indeed, the whole format of Eurorack can be seen as a form of experimentation that is proliferating difference. The number of module producers and the range of available modules has grown to dizzying proportions. There are numerous DIY kits and open source designs. Some of the larger and more established music tech companies have released semi-modular gear and equipment that can be patched into Eurorack systems, such as Moog’s Mother 32 and DFAM, and the Arturia Brute series. As a result, anyone building a Eurorack system can integrate elements from radically different electronic music traditions, approaches and design principles: mixing analogue and digital, west coast and east coast synthesis, modules from US, UK and European producers, classic and more experimental designs, factory produced and home made modules, and every conceivable mode of synthesis.

A DIY kit from Thonk for building the Pulses expander for the Music Thing Turing Machine. This was my first experience of surface mount soldering.

A few months ago I had the pleasure of discussing some of these issues with Matt Preston, who runs the Matttech modular online store. He drew my attention to another important dimension of difference, amongst modular users. Eurorack appeals to a range of different groups. Matt mentioned:

  • maths-and-science nerds who are interested in analogue computing and signal processing;
  • collectors;
  • professional musicians and composers whose paid work involves finding new ways to generate and process sound;
  • live performers who want to build portable, configurable and highly interactive self-contained instruments;
  • creative artists who see modular as an open-ended means of experimentation;
  • dance music producers looking for something beyond the standard sample packs and preset sounds.

The coexistence of these overlapping ‘tribes’, as Matt put it, is part of what has enabled the scene to thrive.

That said, all of these groups are notably dominated by one identity type: male, white, typically heterosexual, reflecting male dominance in music technology as a whole. An informal online self-complete survey of modular users carried out in 2018 (n = 249) had 90% of respondents identifying as male and 85% as not LGBTQ. The sample was not representative, but these percentages are big enough to make the overall picture fairly clear. At the same time, there are notable contemporary female artists using modular, such as Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Lady Starlight, and important historical figures such as Daphne Oram, Eliane Radigue, Pauline Oliveros and Wendy Carlos. The contribution to electronic music of various black and multi-racial cultures is also hard to overstate: through funk, disco, hip hop, electro, techno, house, dub, dancehall, jungle, drum and bass, dubstep, grime, footwork and so on. Some of these subcultures have also been overtly LGBTQ, such as disco and house, while one of techno’s most well known hotspots, Berghain in Berlin, evolved from a gay fetish club.

This issue of diversity in electronic music is often debated at length, usually with trenchant views expressed on all sides. In Eurorack, the fact that the main forum for modular synth discussion is called Muff Wiggler can either be construed as a light hearted joke or as blatant sexism, depending on your perspective – see for example this article and the comments attached to it , and this article from FACT mag in which some of the artists featured discuss issues of diversity.

My own observation is that the Eurorack community is characterised primarily by non-dominant forms of masculinity. The tech-nerd aspect attracts men whose maleness is more aligned with stereotypes of tinkering DIY boffins than with misogynism and chauvenism. These non-dominant masculinities can still exclude people who don’t fit into them, but in ways that might be subtle; I’ve seen some people referring to modules using female pronouns for example.  Explicit sexism, whilst occasionally apparent, is increasingly being challenged, and is less of a widespread issue than more implicitly masculinist and heteronormative tendencies.

Emile Gillet, who runs Mutable Instruments, one of the most popular Eurorack producers, recently transitioned from male to female. As such, she has an interesting take on gender and sexuality in relation to the modular community:

“I have nightmares about being part of a “women in synthesis” panel, the growth of my company having benefited from the very male privilege that felt increasingly icky to me (and I could write reams about how uncomfortable I have been with some events, attitudes, MW posts, aesthetic decisions from other brands…).” (via Reddit)

The Eurorack community’s response to Emile’s transition appears to have been overwhelmingly positive, however (e.g. the Reddit thread quoted above), showing that the scene is capable of welcoming social difference, despite being majority male. When it comes to the technical and creative side of things, modular is strongly non-conformist, open-ended, exploratory and radically pluralistic, so one would hope that this attitude could be extended into other aspects of life. If there is such a thing as a queer or trans approach to synthesis, Eurorack is surely the place to find it.

Further information

There are a number of online modular synth enthusiast sites:

https://www.muffwiggler.com

https://www.modulargrid.net

https://www.reddit.com/r/modular/

The number of Eurorack module producers is vast. Some of the more well-known ones include:

http://www.doepfer.de/

http://www.makenoisemusic.com/

http://busycircuits.com/

https://mutable-instruments.net/

http://www.synthtech.com/

https://www.studioelectronics.com/products/synths/boomstar-modular/

http://tiptopaudio.com/

https://intellijel.com/

Some UK Eurorack retailers include:

https://matttechmodular.co.uk/

https://www.rubadub.co.uk/

https://postmodular.co.uk/

https://elevatorsound.com/

https://cymrubeats.com/

https://www.signalsounds.com/

https://londonmodular.co.uk/

One of the coolest places I have been for modular is CTRL in New York, a small shop packed with modular gear. The staff there were extremely knowledgeable and helpful:

https://www.ctrl-mod.com/

Worldwide, other notable outlets include:

Germany: https://www.schneidersladen.de/en/

France: https://www.modularsquare.com/

Norway: https://www.pyramidsounds.com/

USA: http://www.analoguehaven.com/

USA: https://www.controlvoltage.net/

Australia: https://www.patchcable.com.au/

Japan: http://www.clockfacemodular.com/

For DIY stuff, there are lots of sites. I recently built a Music Thing Turing Machine from a kit from Thonk, and based on that experience I would recommend their kits:

https://www.thonk.co.uk/

https://musicthing.co.uk/index.html

I’m also a big fan of DIY site Kassutronics: https://kassu2000.blogspot.com/

Finally, Oakley deserves a mention here – they don’t do many Eurorack modules, but they are highly regarded. Tony Allgood, who runs the company, is a super helpful synth expert:

http://www.oakleysound.com/index.htm

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