I’m not into modular myself, I’ve already spent enough money on other hardware and lots of audio software 1. The last thing I need is another hobby and modern modular certainly is an expensive one. 😂 But I thought it might be fun to write a little bit about it and give some links to more in-depth info and some cool videos of people performing on modern modular gear.
The OG synths started in the 1960s with large modular systems.
Generally Bob Moog is thought of as the father of synthesis 2 with his large subtractive synthesis modular systems in the 1960s. This came to be known as “East Coast Synthesis”.
Don Buchla was also experimenting at this time with different methods of synthesis and his techniques came to be known as “West Coast Synthesis”. See the article linked below for more information on the Buchla 200 Series.3
East Coast “won out”4 and the modular systems of the 1960s evolved into the fixed signal path synths we know from the 1970s and 1980s like the Minimoog or the Roland Jupiter-8 5. Moog’s (the company) new incarnation also introduced various semi-modular systems like the Matriarch from 2020. These semi-modular instruments have a bit of both worlds - a fixed signal path but with patch points in between for modulations that standard fixed signal path instruments like the Minimoog just aren’t capable of.
The new generation
I noted at the beginning that modular is alive and well. With a wide variety of options available from many manufacturers (names like Pittsburgh Modular, Intellijel, etc) in a newer standard called Eurorack there has never been a better time to be into modular synthesis where one can mix East and West Coast along with effects, samplers, etc.
These days modular is also doable on computers where several competing products have become available like:
- Softube Modular
- VCV Rack
Free, open source, and multi-platform!
- Cherry Audio Voltage Modular
Nucleus is free but add-ons are extra.
With software the possibilities are nearly endless, less expensive, and certainly space-saving as there is no hardware to worry about. Manufacturers of software modular also license designs from hardware manufacturers and model their modules in software.
But as good as it can be, software instruments (modular and otherwise) suffer from one main thing: playability. One of the things that really attracts people to modular hardware (or any knob-per-function standard synth) is the physical interaction with the modules and turning things into not only a sound design session but also a performance.
And a performance it is. You won’t get the same sounds twice as there is no patch memory like there is on a standard synth. Modular is all about being in the moment with the instrument, generating noise, and morphing that noise into new things as the performance continues.
Videos and Articles
Here are some links to some of the big names in modular synthesis as well as some performances. I’ve also linked to some more in-depth articles on the various types of modular synthesis from Perfect Circuit.
- Christian Henson - Intro to Modular
This is an nice intro to real basic modular synthesis from the co-founder of Spitfire Audio, now with The Crow Hill Company.
- Lisa Bella Donna for Moog - “The Mothership”
This is a great example of a pro using both modular and semi-modular gear together. Lisa does wonderful videos for Moog.
- Lisa Bella Donna for Moog - “Mystery Rituals”
Performed on Moog semi-modular gear.
- Suzanne Ciani for Moog - “System 55”
Suzanne is a legend in the modular community. She is well known for both East and West Coast modular performances. This is a Moog System 55 reissue of the classic gear from 1973.
- Modular on the Roof - ep. 2
- Modular on the Roof - ep. 3 w/ Colin Benders
Neat fact: Colin Benders’ studio is the location for the now-famous performance of “Lingus” from Snarky Puppy.
- Modular on the Roof - ep. 7
Love this one because it really shows off using a small modular rig with a drum machine (TR-606 Drumatix in this case).
- Dash Glitch - Cabin Fever 16
Psytrance live-streamed with a modular rig plus other gear. Dash did these during the COVID lockdowns. I wish he had more of them still online.
My personal hardware list:
- Roland System-8
- Moog Subsequent 37
- Modal Electronics Cobalt8
- Yamaha CS6x
- Roland SH-2
- Sequential Circuits Pro One
- Sequential Prophet-5 rev 4
- IK Multimedia Uno Synth Pro Desktop
Bob wasn’t really the father as electronic music existed long before he started releasing modular systems but he was the first to produce and sell a standard set of modular components to musicians. He never considered himself anything other than an engineer.↩︎
I say “won out” because Buchla didn’t go anywhere but his methods were never as popular as Moog’s subtractive methods. That is changing somewhat today as more musicians and sound designers look for new ways to create and mold sound.↩︎
The signal path for most popular synthesizers is one or more oscillators, which produce a waveform, fed into a filter (think EQ on a stereo), which then feeds into an amplifier. Generally there are one or more LFOs (low-frequency oscillators) used to modulate signals in the signal path (think automated volume effects, filter sweeps, etc). Filters and amplifiers generally have some sort of envelope for modulation as well as patch points for modulation via the LFO mentioned above. Most synths also had other pre-defined modulations as well as the ones listed above.↩︎