WTF is a modular synth?

in #musicforlife3 months ago

This is an adaptation of an article I wrote recently for the Creative Head Space's "WTF Guide" - a collection of explainer articles for busy musicians and creative heads. Check out the series here: https://www.creativehead.space/tips-info/

So WTF actually is a modular synth?

When asked to explain it like I'm 5? here's what I came up with:

A modular synth is:

  • a machine with lots of wires, knobs and lights for making music.

  • a musical instrument for experimenting!

  • made up of modules, each designed to perform a single function or group of functions.

You've got my interest - tell me more!

There are a bunch of different standards and formats, but by far the most popular one is Eurorack.

You start with a case and power supply and then add modules – most people find they keep going and experimenting with their setup.

An example modular setup (unpatched)

Why would I want a modular synth?

For many reasons! But a few stand out:

  • It’s physical. If you like the idea of connecting things together and working with something hands-on, then modular ticks that box.

  • You can create a unique instrument. Your system will be completely your own and no-one else will have the same thing!

  • Experimentation and expression. Modular synths invite and reward experimentation – with so much emphasis on flexibility, it’s perfectly normal to come up with something new by connecting things together perhaps not even intended by the manufacturers.

  • If you like the idea of being able to create and continuously refine your own electronic instrument, or if you enjoy exploring sound then modular could be for you!


The process of un-patching a modular synth

Takes longer than pressing new in a software music making program!


Why wouldn’t I want a modular synth?

I feel like in any introduction to modular synths this is needed too as modular can be a giant hole to sink time, money and energy into!

  • Modular synths typically cost more than using software or even other hardware synths (though there are second hand and DIY options).

  • It’s not the quickest way to make music. All that flexibility comes at the price of having to create your instrument every time you start a new patch.

  • They aren’t the best for all types of music. Ok you could create orchestral music with samples in modular, but you’d be mad if that was your focus.

  • Caveats aside, I’ve found modular synths have opened many doors for me as an electronic musician and I’m totally passionate about it. It can be addictive though. You have been warned!

Revelation - the real crux of the matter!

Actually… now I’ve written the above I want to load a bunch of orchestral sounds into a sample module and then manipulate them in all sorts of experimental ways and see where that leads me musically…

This thought sums up what modular is all about better than anything else I’ve said!

Improvising on my modular 'wall' on my Brixton Radio show

Ok, where should I start?

I recommend you first try it out in software with the free VCV rack software: https://vcvrack.com/

These are also some great free resources – start by looking at: modwiggler and modulargrid.

Finally

I love talking about this stuff so if you have any questions or want to know more drop a comment below or get in touch! I'm @tdctunes on Twitter and Instagram and you can also find me via the @risingstargame Discord)

And you can watch my Brixton Radio show where I play my modular synth live every Monday from 9pm UK time on my Twitch channel.

Hope you're having a great week Hive!

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I can see it's great if you like to experiment. I don't even use all the effects I have with guitar, but that's okay too. We each have our own path to creativity. Part of me would like to play with this stuff and I've seen some software versions around.

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Go for it Steve - experimentation is so satisfying in music creation!

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I’m playing with MiRack on the iPad which is much the same as VCV, so great for experimenting and learning about modular concepts. I think I might get a bit addicted.

There is the alternative in Bitwig’s grid system too, a bit different but very versatile for building instruments.

Ah very nice. I had a little play with VCV rack but starting with hardware was when I got really addicted and it became my primary music making method!

Good luck with it all!

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Thanks for the great insights!

Any time - I love to talk about this stuff so much!

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