Building the Dream Machine

A few weeks ago, I got the virus. No, not the flu, but the Modular Synth virus.  As long as I can remember I had this weird attraction to these big machines with all these patch cables.

Modular synths differ from conventional synths because they give you the opportunity to design your own dream machine. When you buy a ‘prepatched’ synth like a Prophet or a Moog, you have your basic needs (sound, filter, amplifier, gain controls (envelopes) and maybe even effects.  With a modular synth, all these parts are separate building blocks with patch points to connect them. Modular synths are usually monophonic, which means they can produce one tone at once, mostly leads, basses and percussive sounds. So a modular provides endless control with a limited sound.  Just imagine an eight voice polyphonic synth. It would need eight separate modular assembly lines to make these tones sound all at once. So in theory it’s possible to create a polyphonic modular. But it will need a lot of room. Or creativity.

I hope this page will grow into a useful resource for some background information.  The Modular playground is huge, there are many thousands of modules to choose from, and you probably want them all. So going ‘modular’ is also about making good choices. They should be driven by the music you love most. Modulars are noise makers. They can scream and tear your eardrums apart. It takes a bit more patience to actually make good music. Modular synths are perfect for sound designers and experimental composers. They can produce wonderful evolving soundscapes and play by themselves – leaving everything to mathematics and physics.

Personally I chose the modular for designing my own sounds. I am a big fan of Native Instruments Maschine, Kontakt and Reaktor. I have all the sounds I will ever need. But they’re not my sounds.  You can mangle the factory samples and dial in some new sounds on a virtual synthesizer using the mouse and a controller. If you just want to make music, don’t even consider the modular route because you will be disappointed because of its complexity, ‘one sound at a time’ design and the absence of a ‘save’ button. When you remove the patch cables, the sound is gone. Makes me think of the ‘ghost in the machine’ a lot.

There are many millions of music producers in the world. The laptop, tablet and smartphone has brought professional music to almost every attic or basement. However, there are only a few thousand people actually involved with using modulars. Modulars are special :).