Modular Synthesis

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

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:

  1. Softube Modular
  2. VCV Rack
    Free, open source, and multi-platform!
  3. 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.



  1. My personal hardware list:

  2. 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.↩︎

  3. Buchla, the company, reissued the 200 Series 2 years ago. See this video↩︎

  4. 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.↩︎

  5. 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.↩︎

February 10, 2024