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.