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.

Send/Receive: a film about experimental music

Some friends of mine recently made a documentary about DIY/noise/experimental music/sound. It involves interviews with, and live footage of, musicians based in the central belt of Scotland, mainly Glasgow, but I have a strong sense that there are similar kinds of activities going on all over the world. There’s lots of stuff in there about sound, but of most interest to me are the insights into the attitudes, practices and values associated with a certain kind of culture – whether we want to call that experimental, DIY, underground, marginal, subcultural or whatever.

The film itself has a pretty DIY, low budget aesthetic, in keeping with the subject matter. It’s available on Vimeo in two parts:

 

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I was interviewed and appear briefly a couple of times. A full transcript of my interview can be downladed as a PDF here. Again it seems interesting not for what it says about me, or about the kind of music I make, but more sociologically, as some reflections on how someone ends up experimenting with sound and audio media, and what sorts of attitudes and values that entails.

The film also has a tumblr site with a FAQ.

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Roxstedy

Here’s something I saw in Edinburgh recently:

Looking at the age range, it seems they want someone for an 80s style band who was born between 1983 and 1993. In other words, someone who, at best, would have only early childhood memories of the 80s, and at worst would have no memories of the 80s at all. I had to check out their Myspace page. Anyway, kudos to them for the DIY advertising technique..

Babylon shall fall

Where to start? Perhaps with my sense that the sheer accumulation of dramatic events, both in the UK and far beyond, demands some kind of response from an academic in my position. And a growing concern that my research interests in sound and audio media might be, to put it bluntly, irrelevant to the pressing matters at hand: a nuclear disaster in Japan; uprisings, unrest and civil war erupting across North Africa and the Middle East; drastic cuts to UK public services; riots and looting in England; crisis and debt in the Eurozone; the phone hacking scandal; the list goes on.

I find myself living in a nation governed by a privileged elite who insist that ‘we are all in this together’, when it is plainly obvious that they have sufficient personal wealth and connections to shield them from any significant downturn in their own economic fortunes. Under their rule, the UK has become a place where a girl who stole a mismatched pair of trainers from a smashed up shop has been given a 10 month jail sentence, yet no grounds can be found to prosecute (b/w)ankers like ‘Sir’ Fred Goodwin, whose reckless mismanagement of the Royal Bank of Scotland led to a bail out in which an incomprehenible £25 billion of government money has been lost. Goodwin has walked away with a £16 million pension, and our legal system is apparently unable (i.e. unwilling) to do anything to prevent this. That money would buy nearly 140,000 pairs of Nike Air Max trainers. Matching pairs.

And yet much of my time in the last six months has been spent adjusting to a new job in Glasgow, writing funding applications for research on sonic geographies, making audio recordings, taking photos and making minimal techno music. On recent excursions, I’ve found myself recording the sounds of a modernist ruin, the howling of the wind in fences around my local sewage works, and the fizzle of metal-studded winter tyres on cars in Finland.

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Is this pure escapism, a kind of apolitical aestheticism? I have a weblog, and I have strong opinions about the unfolding economic and political mess – surely I should be speaking (or writing) up?

Looking around, however, there is no shortage of half-baked, narrowly informed, pre-fabricated analysis being rolled out on all sides of every debate. The danger of saying something stupid and unconstructive seems particularly high. As does the danger of speaking about things of which one has very limited experience or knowledge. For example, why did the BBC decide that David Starkey, a celebrity historian and TV presenter, should have anything worthwhile to say about rioting and youth culture? Or that Jeremy Clarkson – a man who has made a successful career in the media by performing an exaggerated caricature of insensitive, chauvenistic, materialistic masculinity – would be worth quizzing about public sector strikes?

I have a background in social research with children and young people, including on issues of participation and inclusion, and I’ve also spent some time as a youth worker. Yet when it came to the riots in England I genuinely didn’t know what to make of them. The immediate responses on both the right and left seemed inadequate. David Harvey’s commentary, for example, was pretty much exactly what you would expect him to say based on his previous work. Blame global capitalism. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it’s such a familiar diagnosis that I’m left wondering whether it really adds any insight.

What seems more useful at this point are propositions for action, and in this respect a recent public speech by Harvey seems more constructive, particularly towards the end:

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Meanwhile, most mainstream politicians and commentators are offering solutions that seem incredibly negative. The rhetoric is all of necessity, difficulty, tough decisions, limitation, reduction, deficit, essential measures. A miserable, miserly discourse that makes me feel shrouded in permanent drizzle, even when the sun is shining outside. What about joy, hope, fun, play, freedom, life, love? Surely these are things we need most of all right now.

So, here is my end-of-2011, ramshackle, recycled, rehashed, cobbled together, incoherent, poorly-thought-out five point plan for growth – some things that I, you, we could do that might have at least a small chance of making a positive difference.

1. Pay less attention to the mainstream media and party politicians. Both have become largely theatrical, about performance, maufacturing spectacle, entertaining an audience, and the production of celebrity personalities. I don’t know about you, but for me much of the information I’m receiving about the various unfolding crises is being mediated by this process. It’s easy to slip into taking it seriously. Incessant hyperbole and graphic images can seep into the unconscious. Turning off (the radio, the TV, the internet) becomes a survival strategy. If in doubt, do it! We’re also lucky in that the internet has massively diversified the forms of mediatisation available to us. After the riots, I found the London Sound Survey’s recording of looting – which, to my ears, sounds a bit like a rowdy street party – to be an interesting contrast to the looping helicopter footage of burning buildings on the TV news channels.

2. Believe that Babylon shall fall. I’m talking about Babylon in the Rastafari sense of institutional oppression, the various forms of government and policing, and the bureaucracy, lies and corruption they engender. It’s very difficult at the moment to resist thinking in terms of ‘us and them’, and a revolution that will happen at some particular point in history. Babylon fits with that, but I have a different interpretation, of Babylon as a system that we’re all enmeshed in, all reproducing, but that is also continuously falling. ‘Shall fall’ then becomes less a prophecy of some future event, and more a recognition of the inevitable failure that is endemic to processes of control and domination. Check out my current favourite downfall of Babylon anthem, an absolutely deadly Rhythm and Sound track from 2003. It’s the perfect mantra for our times:

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3. If you live in England, consider moving to Scotland. The Scottish Government is as problematic as any parliamentary system, but the level of bullshit appears to be several orders of magnitude lower up here. Alex Salmond is certainly a celebrity of sorts, but to nowhere near the extent of Cameron, Clegg et al. We have some sensible things like proportional representation, free prescriptions, ambitious green energy targets, and the government will pay your fees for higher education if you’ve been living here for 3 years or more. It’s by no means perfect but right now it feels way better than what is going on down south. The weather can be hard work, but things like mountains, beaches, islands, wildlife, fewer traffic jams, plentiful clean water and stunning whisky more than make up for that.

4. Do as many fun things that involve no exchange of money as possible. Yes, this is flippant, yes it’s frivolous, and yes it’s the sort of trite bollocks you’d find in a self-help book, but: every time you have fun without exchanging money, you are actively chipping away, albeit in a tiny way, at the whole crisis-deficit-fear mentality, reminding yourself that your personal happiness does not depend solely on money, and flicking two fingers at western societies’ ludicrous, obsessive, crippling subservience to financial markets. The more of that the better in my view.

5. Finally, let’s resist, in all possible ways, big and small, the appalling marketisation and consumerisation of UK higher education. If you’re based in the UK, consider signing this petition in defence of public education. It’s going to Westminster so it probably won’t make a blind bit of difference, but it might help raise the profile of the issue a bit. The full text of the White Paper being opposed by the petition is here. Thinking a bit more widely, the Globalise Resistance website seems helpful. And there are obviously all kinds of more direct actions that academics can take, and in many cases are taking: informal peer support, giving free talks and public presentations, freely distributing electronic copies of publications. So here’s an offer: if anyone wants any of these things from me, get in touch.

Happy Christmas, and all the best for 2012..

London Sound Survey; bird sound archive; drone gig

A few things that might be of interest:

  • An interview with Ian Rawes, who runs the excellent London Sound Survey, an archive of field recordings made in and around London. Read the full interview here. There are some recordings from the London Sound Survey embeded in the interview. My favourite was this recording of echoing oil refinery sirens from Essex:

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  • One for the ornithologists and twitchers: in the interview, Ian mentions Xeno Canto, an international archive of bird sound recordings. There are currently 7339 species represented in the archive. According to the site, that’s an impressive 69% of all known species.
  • 4 hours of drone: my repetitive/experimental band Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo are taking part in a gig entitled ‘4 hours of drone’ at the CCA in Glasgow on Saturday 4th June. We’ll be inviting the audience to join us in using lots of small cassette recorders to make a drone. More details here.

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