I’ve been wanting to add another sound source to my studio setup for a while, I’m really enjoying the Microbrute and how it has changed my creative process so getting another analog synth seemed like a good idea. The more I looked around at affordable mono synth’s the more I found myself questioning if I really needed another one… the only other obvious way I could improve my setup would be to add a larger polyphonic analog synth like a DSI prophet 12 or a Moog but they are at the more expensive end of the scale and I can’t afford to buy one. As I looked around I started to wonder what I could do… how could I get a monster synth without having to sell my car to finance it.

I’ve long admired Modular synthesisers but never really thought about putting one together… it always seemed like it would be far too complicated and yet another huge learning curve to tackle. If you aren’t familiar with Modular synthesisers they are basically a synthesiser that is assembled from individual modules, each module has a specific purpose, some modules generate noise while others help you craft that nose into something musical. They look like a cross between a 1940’s telecommunications patch board and a mad scientists laboratory  – A giant machine covered in cables and blinking lights that generates weird squeaking and fart noises. It appealed to me for a few reasons – for a start you can assemble something entirely custom with modules that will all work together even though they are made by different manufacturers. Secondly, you can spread the cost out and make smaller purchases more frequently rather than having to outlay a lot of cash initially (of course if you can afford this then by all means spend away!) and you can also assemble it in a way that best fits the space you have available. You aren’t restricted by the box the manufacturer gives you like a standard synthesiser – you create it and add to it over time to build the sound you want. Obviously if you are like me and working to a budget it is going to take some time to create your dream setup but if you get a few key pieces at the beginning you will be able to start making some noise.

There are a few different formats available but the Eurorack format appealed to me the most. The modules are small, widely available and for someone working to a budget this format works well. There also seems to be a lot of innovation happening in the Eurorack format at the moment with some really inspiring modules coming onto the market so it is a great time to go modular. I have a basic understanding of synthesis and how the various sections on a synthesiser fit together to shape a sound, but I felt like I needed to learn a lot more before I got serious about all this modular stuff. There is a great series of articles at Sound on Sound that I would recommend, I am still working through them at the moment (it’s split into about 30 parts) and for the majority it confuses more than enlightens me but that seems to come with the territory.

I also found a great community of modular heads at muffwiggler.com who are really friendly and helpful. I posted about what I wanted to achieve (it is important to set some goals right away) with a modular and how I was thinking of going about it and received a lot of advice about what I should focus on to get the basic building blocks in place. Another great resource is Modular Grid – This site gives you the ability to sketch out your potential setup and create a virtual modular, it features different formats and modules from most of the major manufacturers. A few minutes on this site and you will start to see how your modular can get out of control really quickly! 17 Modules later I realised it might be time to cut back.

If videos are more your thing then there are some introductory series on youtube, Flux has just started an intro to Eurorack series that seems like a good place to start. You are going to have to spend a lot of time reading and learning and asking stupid newbie questions but the modular community is cool with that so don’t be afraid – everyone needs to start somewhere. It’s also a good idea to look at some manufacturers websites so you can get a feel for the different flavours that are out there, here are a few that I have found so far:

Pittsburgh Modular
Mutable Instruments
Harvestman
Doepfer
Analogue Solutions
Tip Top Audio
Intellijel
Make Noise

So after a fairly intensive round of research and advice from some Modular masters I feel like I am starting to get my head around the world of modular synths, some things are still a complete mystery to me but hopefully I’ll be able to write more in-depth about this stuff soon and use a language that anyone can understand when talking about Oscillators, VCA’s, VCFs and all the crazy terminology you need to become fluent in. Here is a taste of the creative potential that these instruments have…

Posted by:Scott Brown

A creative type from New Zealand exploring sound and visual art.

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