I was recently interviewed by NZ Musician magazine about my opinions on Modular synths and how I integrate it into my creative process. The article talks to a few NZ Modular heads here in NZ and talks about how the modular fits into the music scene here. You can read the full article in the latest February edition of NZM but I thought I’d post my complete interview as well.


When did you first hear about modular synths?

I’ve followed Trent Reznor’s career pretty closely since the 1990’s. He has a wonderful collection of rare and unusual instruments and the modular seemed to make a consistent appearance whether he was working on Nice Inch Nails material or working on film scores.

How did you get into modular synths?

I was getting bored with making music primarily using a computer and I wanted to make the shift to hardware, staring at the screen and working with a mouse just lacked a really tangible hands on experience. You can’t get much more hands on than a modular and the fact that you can build your own custom setup makes it a lot easier when you re working to a budget.

When I got into modular there weren’t a lot of options in terms of “complete” packages” that you could buy and I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on a case so I built my own box, bought some rails and a power supply and it was time to start researching what direction I wanted to take my system.

What do you like about them?

Working with a modular has completely changed my approach to making music. The modular world is one of happy accidents and you can never tell where a creative session will lead. I also enjoy the fact that there are no presets, it forces you to exist in the moment without overthinking what you re doing. Every patch you make will never sound quite the same as it does in that moment.

What are you trying to get out of your modular synth? What do you use it for?

I’ve found that I naturally split my writing session into 2 phases when using the modular. The first night is always just making sounds, creating patches and working out how they can be tweaked and evolved. The second session is when you start trying to take the patches you have made and shape them into an actual idea. I have also used it of some experimental live sets recently which was a lot of fun.

What do you think of the MS market both in a general sense and as as New Zealander?

The market is booming at the moment and small independent companies are starting to get the attention they deserve, we’re seeing somewhat of a modular revolution now that major companies like Roland and Moog have entered the market. It’s still difficult here in NZ as no one sells modules so you still need to import everything from overseas. Luckily there are some very reliable retailers in the US and Japan so it is still possible to get hold of everything that is available globally.

People say they are a vacuum for all your money and addictive. Do you agree? Is your synth finished? Do you have an end goal on your synth?

You definitely need to go in with a plan about what type of system you want to make (e.g are you using it for drones? drums? audio processing?) this helps to keep you somewhat on track. I limited my case to 104hp but admittedly I’ve started to look at expanding. It is difficult on your bank balance when companies continuously come out with new and very creative modules! I just say my system is finished for now…

What is your favourite modular music?

I really enjoy Alessandro Cortini, Taylor Dupree, Deru and The Haxan Cloak just to name a few. Stylistically I really enjoy minimal sounds and field recordings processed via modular effects. Anything that really pushes sound design into new directions.

A problem a lot of people had with the documentary I Dream Of Wires was that is unnecessarily shat on other musical instruments (the Yamaha DX7 in particular and that it did not provide much more sonic variety than atonal bloops and bleeps. What do you think about these two issues within the MS community?

I think in any situation where you get a tight community of “music fans” together there will always be some digs made about certain bits of gear, i’ve seen the same thing happen with guitarists and drummers. The DX7 can sound amazing but that interface… yikes. The bloops and bleeps issue is something you stumble across a lot, there seem to be a lot of guys out there that have giant walls of modular gear that don’t actually seem to be making anything with them other than expensive fart noises. I find creative limitation results in more music.

Is analog better than digital?

Analog has “that quality” that is hard to nail down, but modular makers these days are insane geniuses and analog emulation can barely be noticed. Digital also provides some really advanced features that developers are taking full advantage of. There’s space for both formats, as long as it sounds good who really cares.

What is your favourite module?, module company?

My modular is 100% Mutable Instruments. Oliver has an incredible ability to pack loads of features into a small module and they all typically have “secret” functions or multiple modes that they can be operated in so work well in a small system. I am currently obsessed with Clouds, it kept selling out but I was lucky enough to get one of the last batch. It’s a “texture synthesiser” that works along the same lines as a granular synth but with some extra tricks – ideal for drones or glitchy chaos.

Where do you see the following things heading in the future? Electronic music? Synthesizers in general? Modular synthesizers?

I hope that electronic music continues to head in a more experimental, less commercial direction. There are so many amazing labels out there producing some genuinely creative sounds (check out Students of Decay and the 12k label). I think the “analog revival” we’ve having will slow down soon, digital emulations of vintage gear seems to be the popular flavour at the moment. I’m more interested in completely new instruments like the Folktek range of noise machines and Ciat Lonbarde gear. We should be focussing on making new machines that can take us in new directions as artists, not new versions of old machines.

Anything else to add?

Modular synths will change the way you make music and appreciate sound, but the learning curve is steep and requires a lot of patience and experimentation. Luckily the online modular community is very supportive and helpful. With big companies like Moog entering the market it will be easier than ever to get your hands on an entry level setup so make the most of the modular evolution! But remember they call it “euro-crack” for a reason…

Posted by:Scott Brown

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

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