I haven't used my eurorack stuff very much in the past year. It's just been sitting there taunting me. So I decided to renovate it. I hoped this would revive my interest in it and, you know, help me make new music.
I made a post about this on my YouTube community. And, people had strong feelings about modular synths. Who would've guessed that here on the internet of all places, camps would instantly form.
What is a modular synth (and eurorack)?
I know some of you have no idea what eurorack or modular synthesis is, so allow me to synth-splain real quick. It's an electronic instrument or effects rack that you build yourself by choosing any combination of pre-made "modules." Eurorack is one common format for modules to make sure they all play nice with each other.
It's like Legos for sound designers. But, if you stepped on one, you'd sob and have to sell your car. Yeah... they're kind of pricy.
It can be addictive and grow out of control - often referred to as "eurocrack" withing the synth community. AND to top it all off, it can be unwieldy to use musically. It usually wants to make bleep blops. It's easy to spend hours lost in listening to those hypnotic bleep blops instead of finishing music.
So all this begs the question, why on earth would anyone use one?
Are there any benefits at all to this kind of workflow?
And are there alternatives for those who don't want to spend thousands on this stuff?
Why are modular synths appealing?
When I started recording and releasing my own music, I had a bit of an issue. I wanted to and did hire live players for my recordings. But I live in the middle of nowhere. My only option was to hire friends I went to school with. Then they all got jobs and moved away.
There just aren't a lot of resources here for session players.
I didn't want to rely too much on sample libraries in my albums. They have their place, but felt like cheating in my case. In my head, if I used them to try to pass as real players, it would make it seem like I was just some guy making stuff in his tiny home studio. Which I was, of course.
So through some weird logical acrobatics I thought going all in on synthesizers would feel more authentic somehow. And I've always had an interest in using unconventional things. If few other people were using it, it might lead me in some different directions than my peers.
Then I found out about these synths you could build yourself - customize to your own unique taste. If I put together a modular system, no one else would have that exact configuration of modules. I was in.
Then I saw the price, so I decided to start with a few effects modules. And that leads me to one of the greatest benefits of modular synthesis....
CV - or control voltage - connects and controls everything in a modular system. This allows you to route the signal path in a variety of ways. It allows to control almost any parameter with almost anything else you can imagine.
I may be an organ player, but, I'm only one human. So, the ability to design a patch that could evolve on its own while I played alongside it was appealing.
Once I had a grasp on the possibilities of CV, the appeal of modular started to make even more sense.
When I sit down to create a patch from scratch, I'm forced to think about what I'm doing more carefully. Just getting a sound out of it requires a little bit of knowledge of how synths work. But once you know the basics, it encourages you to experiment.
This is the strength of modular synthesis. It's a weird mix of intention and experimentation. And it quickly leads you to unexpected places.
You think about sound design differently when you have to physically make the connections.
“Modular sucks for actually making music”
I hear this every time I post something about modular these days. The funny thing about modular synthesis though, is that it’s actually up to the person building it and using it. It’s….modular - it is quite literally what you make it.
If you don’t enjoy sound design or building sounds from the ground up, you’ll find it tedious. If you do enjoy that, you’ll find it inspiring.
I'll never convince the internet cynics. I won't waste my time trying. But, I have made whole albums that started with a few inspiring modular sounds.
My 2020 album, Signals, came from experimenting with hardware. Modular played a huge part in that.
It forced me to commit to things because there was no going back to endlessly tweak them like I could in the DAW.
I made last year's EP "Respirate" in much the same way.
I had to make sounds intentionally. I had to think about how they would fit together first. Then something would happen. It would send me in an unexpected direction or inspire me to play with the patch in a different way than usual.
No doubt, it's much less flexible than a DAW. It's easy to get lost in aimless meandering. Maybe that's why so many end up with an expensive blinky bleep bloop machine.
So why do some people find it inspiring and others find it too restrictive? Well, aside from the fact that we all have different tastes... I have a theory I've started to formulate (that sounds a bit sinister doesn't it?)
The Importance of Musical Dialog
I've been thinking about this a lot recently. I think the reason I find this sound design so interesting is less about the sequences or drones I make and more about what they inspire me to do.
This requires what may be the most important attribute for a composer - imagination.
If you can hear a weird sequence and start to imagine what could fit around that, you’re halfway there.
But how do I actually start the dialog between composer and machine? I need some skill with a more harmonically and melodically flexible instrument. This is how most of my pieces start. And it’s an integral part of my process.
I’m not saying everyone needs to be a virtuoso. But, knowing an instrument well enough to explore ideas is like knowing a language. You can start to have a conversation with even the most static of synth sequences.
I think playing a traditional instrument is undervalued in electronic music. That's largely because it's hard. We've tried to say programming a laptop is the same.
But, sometimes if we take the time to do the hard thing rather than looking for shortcuts, we find the most meaningful skills. These skills unlock many possibilities that may currently be disguised as frustrations.
There are some things you can't learn in a 20 second Tik Tok. But those are usually the most worthwhile things to learn. I heard someone put it really well: "people selling shortcuts and quick tips prey upon your impatience."
Of course there are inherent drawbacks to the modular workflow. You can chase inspiration down a black hole that leads to nowhere pretty easily.
One of the reasons I'm currently re-working my own modular rack is to make it more immediate. Some modules can get very deep with menus and weird button combos. I can never remember them. It defeats the purpose of working this way.
The new modules I'm adding are more intuitive. Or, they're ones I had before and had learned well before a G.A.S. attack led me to swap them for new, shiny ones.
If you work to picture or on projects that need exact recall and future tweak-ability, it can be a pain. Once your patch is gone, it’s gone forever, so you better be recording at almost all times to catch the best bits.
And did I mention it’s pretty expensive?
So here are a few other tools I’ve found. They encourage a similar sense of exploration without needing the same financial investment. They’re also a great way to learn about modular workflow.
It's worth noting that I am sponsored by none of them :)
- Phaseplant allows you to build any kind of synth or sound generator from the ground up. You do it block by block. It's modular. You can experiment with different routings just like with a physical modular synth. Plus, you can save your patches and recall them anytime. This is great for ongoing projects, as we mentioned before.
- Many DAWs today are build with this modular workflow in mind. I switched to Ableton a few years back for this very reason. Adding modulators to wiggle almost any parameter was appealing. It unlocked new possibilities in plugins I already had. Bitwig and some other DAWs have this capability too, but I haven't tried them all.
- If you just want to grab a knob (stop snickering, UK friends), you can buy a semi modular synth. Semi modular synths have some basic functions pre-routed. You can use them without any patch cables. But, you can also re-arrange the signal flow and experiment. Even a self-contained synth like the Pro 3 has modular capabilities. You can customize routings in its "modulation matrix" menu instead of by hand with cables.
Any of these are great options for getting started. If you've been thinking about modular synthesis, I'd recommend starting with software. It will show you whether you even enjoy that kind of workflow and sound design.
It's definitely not for everyone, but I've found that like most things you get out of it what you put into it. With some intentionality in building it and patching it, you can absolutely make music with it that you won't discover without it.