Modular myths

Modular synthesis has become fashionable in recent years. There’s often a sense of excitement bordering on fetishisation in discussions about it – though sometimes accompanied by a bit of eye-rolling scepticism. So is modular all it’s made out to be? Will it take your productions to a new level, or just drain your bank balance in exchange for some nerdy gadgets?

In this post, I’ll examine a few ideas that circulate about modular, and discuss whether these hold true in practice. My observations are based on my experience of building a small Eurorack system over the last three years, which I’ve been using for making techno and ambient music. Before that I had a Nord G2 modular which I used for various musical projects for over ten years.

If you want something to listen to while reading, here are a couple of my productions that make use of modular.

In this techno track ‘Quantize’, most of the sounds came from my modular with the exception of the drums:

‘Keep Trying’ is a more ambient piece, using a generative sequence from my modular as the main part:

“Modular is the most advanced form of synthesis”

Synth enthusiasts sometimes present modular as a kind of elite pursuit, to which only the most advanced users will gravitate. The thinking here is that modular is technically more complex than all-in-one synths, but also more flexible and open-ended.

It’s certainly true that modular can be mind-bendingly complex if you have a large system and build intricate patches. Looking at synthesiser history, Moog switched from making modular systems to building the Minimoog because keyboard players often found modular too complicated. The Minimoog was deliberately designed to be much simpler to use, which is a large part of why it was so successful.

But there is nothing intrinsically very complex about patching outputs and inputs together with cables. It’s perfectly possible to have a modestly sized system that isn’t overwhelming to use. A small case with, say, an oscillator, a filter, an amplifier and an envelope would be easier to program than an all-in-one synth with a more complex structure. Yamaha’s classic DX7, for instance, is notoriously tricky to program from the front panel. Some popular soft synths are also deep and complex – Omnisphere for example.

A key difference is that modular synths don’t have presets. You have to start from scratch and patch by hand, and you can’t save the patch. So if you want the convenience and speed of working with ready-made sounds, modular isn’t great. But if you like building your own sounds, manual patching is actually a fun and hands-on way to do that, compared to many all-in-one hardware and software synths I’ve used over the years. Compared to some modular software platforms like Max MSP, patching a small Eurorack system is relatively straightforward.

“Modular is cripplingly expensive”

It’s true that modular can cost vast amounts of money, particularly if you want to build a large system and buy everything new. 5U format modulars such as Moog and MOTM are particularly pricey. Eurorack is much more affordable, but the costs still mount up when you take into account cases, power supplies, MIDI to CV converters, patch cables and so on. It’s also true that some people get hooked on modular, and are then constantly looking to expand their system. That sort of habit can burn through money at an alarming rate.

So it can be expensive – but it doesn’t have to be outlandishly so. While building a modular system is never likely to be as cheap as buying a copy of Ableton Live or a Behringer clone, there are ways to reduce the outlay such as:

  • keeping your system small (a smaller system is also easier to use)
  • building gradually, so the cost is spread over time
  • avoiding expensive modules
  • buying second hand (there is a thriving used market on sites such as ModularGrid, Mod Wiggler, Gumtree and eBay)
  • building modules from DIY kits, e.g. those sold by Thonk
A Kassutronics 3340 VCO I built from parts. The total cost was around £80. The 3340 is a great sounding oscillator used in the SH101, Jupiter 6, Pro 1, Prophet 5, Memorymoog, Oberheim OB-8 and many others – so this is a high quality analogue sound source for a modest price.

A lot depends on what you’re comparing to. For example, a Doepfer SEM filter Eurorack module costs less than £100 new. The Oberheim SEM Pro module, from which that filter design is borrowed, typically sells for over £2000 second hand. Or if you want a real analogue 909 kick drum, Tip Top make a Eurorack version for £150, whereas an original TR-909 will set you back upwards of £4000. Obviously these vintage machines are complete instruments, so perhaps it’s not a fair comparison. But if you want to incorporate specific elements of classic machines into your production rig without using software emulations, Eurorack is often the cheapest way to do that.

“Modular sounds amazing”

This is another case of ‘not necessarily’. There is no shortage of modular noodling videos on YouTube, in which mostly middle aged men use large amounts of gear to produce some slightly disappointing bleeps. Modular clearly has massive potential for sound design, but (for me at least) it can take a bit of time and effort to get good results.

The amount of trial and error involved tends to be high, due to the open ended nature of a modular system. Spend 15 minutes tweaking an SH-101, and you’ll likely have a nice sounding synth line. Spend 15 minutes with a modular system, and unless you’re lucky (or very skilled) the results will probably be more rudimentary. But on the flipside, with a bit of persistence, eventually you’ll get into sonic territory far beyond what an SH-101 can do.

It’s difficult to make meaningful generalisations about how modular ‘sounds’ given the massive variety of different formats, modules and manufacturers. With my own system, over time I’ve found that it can have quite a wild, raw sound. Patching together multiple elements, all being modulated in different ways, often creates happy accidents and unexpected changes.

That unpredictability is a big part of the appeal, but it can also make modular parts more challenging to record and mix. Often there is lots of very low and high frequency content to deal with, big jumps in dynamic range, and sometimes the output can be noisy. I’ve found that having good EQ, compression and noise reduction plugins, together with some ruthless editing and detailed automation, is helpful for turning the results of a sprawling modular jam into something more listenable.

There are also challenges relating to aesthetic judgment. Assembling music using presets and samples can be more straightforward, insofar as it involves evaluating the suitability of sounds made by someone else, and that person’s ego usually isn’t in the room to influence the decision. By comparison, with modular, I find that after an hour or so building a patch, the attachment I have to it inevitably makes it harder to judge whether it’s sonically interesting or not.

In summary…

I hope this article has provided a brief insight into some of the strengths and weaknesses of modular synths. Obviously, these observations are all coming from my particular perspective; other people’s experiences will vary enormously depending on what type of sounds they’re trying to make, what mix of modules they choose, and how they go about using them.

Personally, what I find compelling about Eurorack modular is that it is a fun, hands-on way to explore the possibilities of synthesis. It’s enabled me to build a system that is well suited to producing the kind of evolving, modulating synth lines that I’m looking for, and for processing other sound sources in interesting ways. I also like how the inability to save a patch forces me to commit to audio. Tracks sometimes take shape a bit faster as a result.

Nevetheless, I’m not a fan of the elitism that sometimes seems to attach to modular. It’s not intrinsically superior to other approaches; it’s not a magic bullet for making amazing sounds or ‘unlocking your creativity’; at times it can be unwieldy and frustrating. Despite the flexibility and open-endedness of modular, it still has its own cliches and tropes, just like any other area of music production.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to leave a comment below about your own experiences of modular. And if you’re interested in learning more about synthesis, modular or how to get the most out of your own system, I offer tutorials on these things. Details here.

Some observations about the Liverpool pilot raves

On Friday 30th April and Saturday May 1st, Liverpool club night Circus hosted two clubbing pilot events, billed as a first step towards re-opening the UK club scene. These events were part of the UK government’s Events Research Programme (ERP), headed up by a theatre director and a businessman, with the stated purpose of exploring how mass events can be resumed following the COVID-19 lockdowns.

The headline DJs were Sven Vath and Fatboy Slim, with a host of other well known names on the line ups, including the Blessed Madonna, Hot Since 82, Heidi, Jayda G. The events were promoted by Yousef, who also DJ’d. The 3000 attendees on each night were reportedly required to have a negative lateral flow COVID test result from that day or the day before, and were invited to take part in further PCR testing before and after. Once inside the venue, there was no requirement to wear masks or socially distance.

Looking at the reaction amongst the dance music accounts I follow on Twitter, many seemed emotional on catching a first glimpse of what could be the return of UK clubbing. Media coverage of the event was similarly upbeat, on both specialist dance music websites such as Mixmag and DJ Mag, and more mainstream outlets such as BBC News and Manchester Evening News.

Notably absent in this coverage was any critical analysis. If the pandemic created a situation in which searching questions about dance music have begun to be asked more openly – about egregious racism and sexual abuse within the scene for example – the implicit message around the pilot raves seemed to be that it is now time to put that stuff back in its box. No more awkward questions.

A closer look at what was being glossed over is revealing, however.

There has been very little scrutiny to date of the “scientific” dimension of these events. I have so far been unable to find anything in the public domain about the research design, methodology, ethics, or how the results will be made available (if anyone reading is aware of anything, please drop a comment or get in touch via the contact page and I will update this post accordingly). The terms of reference for the Events Research Programme briefly state that the governance of the programme will include a “Science Board with an independent chair [to] provide scientific assurance across the programme and ensure events are following ethical and scientific principles and will generate evidence of sufficient quality to inform decisions” which is considerably less detail than would be needed to achieve a pass in an undergraduate research assignment.

This absence of detail is particularly concerning given the UK government’s track record through the pandemic of claiming to be “following the science” whilst also regularly going against scientific advice, in ways that have created thousands of additional, avoidable deaths. So while some of the publicity around these events has referred to them by the bizarre term “science parties”, it would be more accurate to describe them as a temporary suspension of normal COVID infection control measures for 6000 people, with no serious public discussion of the rationale, risks or mitigating strategies.

On the subject of risks, a number of accounts on Twitter (e.g. here and here) pointed out with dismay that the headliner of the first Liverpool pilot rave, Sven Vath, recently toured India. He is one of many high profile DJs who have continued to play raves during the pandemic, regardless of the obvious transmission risks of large crowded events, and despite various pleas for such events to stop.

A review of a Vath performance in Goa from 20th February offers the following description:

“Even during these unprecedented times, the dancefloor did not fail to fill up with a mixed crowd of Goa’s residential global urban nomads, old school hippies and excited Indian tourists, who flocked to Hilltop from all over India in big numbers, eager to see the evolution of electronic music.”

“Unprecedented times” is a mild-mannered euphemism for a pandemic that has, at the time of writing, killed at least 225,000 people in India. My overall impression reading about the dance scene in Goa during the pandemic is of a culture so addicted to its own hedonism that serious risk to life is simply ignored. We may never have the data that would be needed to conclusively demonstrate whether these raves contributed to the rapid escalation of the COVID crisis in India, but looking at the images of packed dancefloors, and based on what we know about COVID transmission, it seems highly likely.

For any DJ involved in that situation to then headline an event whose stated aim was to test whether club events could be made COVID-safe speaks volumes about the nature of dance music culture, and its almost complete lack of accountability. These events were the first proper legal raves in the UK since the start of lockdown, and as such were extremely high profile. Any competent DJs could have been booked and the events would likely have sold out, so it is instructive to look at the choices made, and the people to whom this opportunity was given.

It is hard to avoid the impression that a marker has been laid down, whether intentionally or not: that established big name artists will continue to be given preference, and that they will continue to be free, as the Ultra Naté song puts it, to do what they want to do.

These events were therefore tests in another sense, insofar as they can be read as a first indicator of what UK dance music culture might look like at the other side of lockdown. Based on this initial evidence, it would appear that dance music has no more been reformed by the pandemic than Boris Johnson was by his hospitalisation with COVID.

Dance music apparently continues to be a culture in which reckless and irresponsible behaviour can take place in plain sight, without raising much in the way of comment from the other artists on the bill, from the journalists covering the events, or from the government-backed scheme of which they were part. That complicity may not be intentional, but it surely can’t be accidental. Those of us who love dance music are embroiled within a culture that routinely avoids accountability, through a tacit agreement between many of its key players not to ask difficult questions of each other.

This absence of accountability means that the raver ethos of peace, love, unity and respect can be cited to provide a welcoming appearance, without addressing the more difficult issues of how to translate those ideas into reality. Thus Yousef is reported in Mixmag as saying about the Circus events, “I just want people to kind of feel connected to one another this weekend and have that kind of original rave ethos where it’s inclusive.” That is an aspiration to which many dance music fans will relate, but which means little without any discussion of what it would require in practice. As Frankie Hutchinson puts it (full article here):

There’s no better way to avoid accountability than by promoting platitudes that brand yourself as so full of love that you couldn’t possibly have space for hate.

Thanks to Mathys Rennela and Annabel Ross for conversations online that have helped inform this piece.

Some thoughts on ghost production

Recently there was a minor storm in the techno community on Twitter about ghost production. It revealed some underlying values about authenticity, integrity and individuality that I found intriguing, because they appear to be in conflict with certain fundamental aspects of how dance music operates.

(To anticipate a criticism: I realise that for many people dance music is all about the music, and it’s seen as a waste of time to discuss it or theorise it. I would respectfully disagree. Any vibrant art form will generate critical thought and debate around it, and these things can contribute to the vibrancy of the art form in question.)

Ghost production is an arrangement where a producer is paid to produce tracks to be released under the name of another artist. The ghost producer may agree not to be named, or may be given a production credit, but will not be named as the main artist. They may create the entire track, or be employed to assist with specific elements. These practices are often frowned upon as a form of deceit, although some people see them simply as a pragmatic division of labour.

There are many other musical practices in which authorship is blurred: covers, tribute acts, sampling, etc. It’s also easy to think of parallels outside music. Marcus Boon’s book In Praise Of Copying (free pdf available here) is a recommended read on this bigger picture, but for this post I want to focus on ghost production.

The Twitter storm began when one DJ (I’ll avoid using names, in keeping with the ghost theme) posted a question: why do people in the dance music scene complain about ghost production, but won’t name anyone using ghost producers? If it’s so bad, why not expose it?

In response, and with a hint of mischief, another DJ and producer posted the name of a well-known label, which he said he’d heard used ghost producers.

Things then kicked off, with a pile on of views alternately rubbishing the idea that such a respected label would ever do this, and conversely slagging off the label in question for using ghost production.

The label boss – himself also a respected producer and DJ – weighed in to reject the rumour in no uncertain terms. Before long, the Tweet naming his label was deleted and an apology issued. Within a few days techno Twitter moved on, and the ghost production kerfuffle was buried under a much more politically charged discussion of racism (see here and here for good summaries of that).

But to stay with the ghost production furore and think about it a bit more, it did at least neatly answer the original question. Definitive claims about who uses ghost producers are difficult – perhaps impossible – to make, because the very nature of ghost production, and the stigma attached, demands a high level of uncertainty, creating a haze of rumours and unverifiable allegations. It’s a bit like crop circles: once you know who makes them, the whole thing doesn’t really work any more.

While people disagreed as to whether the label in question would ever use ghost producers, there seemed to be broad agreement across the debate that the practice was at best problematic, and at worst appallingly duplicitous.

That agreement looks to me like an instance of what Foucault called the ‘author function’. This term refers to the practices through which certain creative works are attributed to specific individuals, thereby naturalising the idea that such works emanate from a person (or persons), belong to them, and can be accounted for by them. Foucault was writing about texts and authors, but the controversy over ghost production suggests that his arguments also apply to music.

(At this point it is worth noting that for Foucault, subjects are always produced. So on this view authors, as subjects, do not precede their works. Rather, works are retrospectively attributed to the person through whom they came into being, whose subjectivity as an author – or artist, producer, whatever – is then formed by that attribution. This point is fundamental in understanding Foucault’s thought, but also quite counter-intuitive.)

Foucault’s essay “What is an author?” discusses the author function in far more detail than I can do justice to here (the full essay can be downloaded here). But his argument is driven by a question that might be worth asking about dance music: is the author function helpful, or are there instances where, as a regulatory principle, it might be limiting?

When it comes to economic issues, such as revenues from streaming and performing rights, it is easy to see an argument for clear lines of ownership, given how little money most dance music producers make from their work, and how much exploitation has taken place over the history of the music industry. But there is nothing inherently economically exploitative about ghost production; the fee earned might well be more than if the producer had released the track under his or her own name. So the economic argument for the author function is not so strong.

What seems to be driving the disdain for ghost production is more like a kind of morality based on notions of authenticity and artistic integrity: a conviction that the ties that bind works to individual artists have an ethical value.

In relation to this point, Foucault makes a provocative claim: that the social function of the author is to limit the danger posed by creative works, and hence to constrain their potential. Works are tied down, fixed in place, and held to account by mooring them to individual subjects, rather than allowing the possible meanings and functions of a work to proliferate free from such ties.

An attachment to this kind of author function seems particularly ironic in dance music, as cultural form that owes so much to black, working class and queer practices of liberation. Dance music arose from attempts to escape from, rather than conform to, dominant discourses and structures.

The attachment to the individualising author function is ironic also because dance music is such a collective enterprise. All music is collective of course, but some forms of musical culture thrive by emphasising aspects of individuality. Rock music appears to have absorbed the 18th century idea of the virtuoso, reshaping it into the role of the lead singer. This person tends to be portrayed as an individual creative genius, acting as a focal point for the attention of the audience, and the personalised narratives spun around the music.

Dance music, by contrast, doesn’t require this cult of the individual in order to function. At its most basic, dance music brings disparate people and machines together, into a mass of dancing bodies. Likewise, the art of DJing is precisely to blend one work into another, creating a seamless flow in which the contributions of individual artists are less important than the whole. The DJ’s role is to select and mix music to facilitate dancing, not to be singled out as a focus of attention. The idea of the superstar DJ can be seen as a reassertion of conventions of rock and pop – to put it more bluntly, a colonisation of dance music by these conventions, rather than something intrinsically fundamental to dance music itself.

If I’m right that dance music is at root a form of culture in which individual creativity is subordinated to the functionality of dancing as a collective practice of liberation, then ghost production is not intrinsically problematic. Its undermining of the author function is actually quite apt.

To conclude: this blog post isn’t an argument in favour of ghost production. What I want to suggest is simply that it might not make sense to judge ghost production according to norms of authenticity that sit uneasily with core aspects of how dance music operates. Perhaps better questions would be things like: are ghost production arrangements fair or exploitative? Are the producers being remunerated adequately, compared to what the track might earn? And most importantly, is the music any good?

Upcoming events on sound and space

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be presenting at two events that both look excellent.

Tuned City in Ancient Messene, Greece, 1st-3rd June 2018

I will be presenting about an audio drift I made for the ruins of Kilmahew and St. Peter’s Seminary. Ancient Messene is a collection of ruins, so hopefully this work will fit with the place.

I will be playing examples of how sound art methods, such as working with binaural recording and portable audio players, can disrupt the conventional heritage approach to history. The heritage industry promotes the idea that history is a fixed, linear chronological narrative, confined to the past, which should be clearly and unambiguously represented to people to help them learn about history, e.g. through the audio guides that give factual information to visitors at heritage tourist attractions.

My presentation will be about how can audio be used in more playful and generative ways to reconfigure places. By using techniques such as binaural recording to create spatial illusions, and overlapping multiple sounds and voices, audio can remind us that history is ongoing, that places are always happening in the here-and-now, that events are multiple and messy, and that there is no single ‘correct’ version of what a place ‘is’.

Audio also physically moves bodies – pushing ears and skin and from there hooking into the nervous system. With my audio drift people reported feeling compelled to slow down at points, or to hurry away from certain areas of the site. One woman was drawn by some watery audio to a stream – and then slipped and fell in (disclaimer: no one was hurt. Thankfully.) So narrating a place through audio is not just about representing facts to people. It can be a visceral experience, in which learning happens in an embodied way. In ruins, there is particular potential for using audio to amplify uncanny and haunted atmospheres.

Symposium on ‘Sound and space: theory and methods in sonic geographical research’ at Cardiff University, 5th-6th June 2018

This event is free to attend, although places are limited. There is more information here:

http://blogs.cardiff.ac.uk/geographyandplanning/2018/03/26/sound-and-space-theory-and-methods-in-sonic-geographical-research-symposium/

My sonic geography collaborator Jonathan Prior is organising this, together with urban cultural geographer Mark Jayne. Day one will be presentations from invited speakers including me. Day two will be a more hands-on sonic geography methods workshop led by Jonathan.

My presentation will be about working with voice audio as research data rather than only as a precursor to textual transcription. Voice audio can be used to productively disrupt dominant paradigms of voice: by propagating voices as vibration, experimenting with the machinic media ecologies that constitute voice, and rewiring the relations between voice, space and place. I will be presenting some examples of experimental styles of voice audio, again drawing on my Kilmahew audio drift, to illustrate creative ways of editing voices and using contrapuntal polyphony (to borrow the term used by Glen Gould to describe his solitude trilogy of radio documentaries).

You can read more about my audio drift for Kilmahew and St. Peter’s Seminary in this paper here: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1474474014542745

The paper is open access so you don’t need a university subscription to read it.