Building a modular synthesizer is quite a challenge. Even though the world of Eurorack promises unlimited possibilities, every choice you make offers one or more new limitations. First, every module you choose narrows down your choice for the next one. I know that sounds weird, but when you have a 104 HP skiff and buy a Mother 32, your space will run out quickly and it will seriously limit your next choice. Every time you click ‘add to cart’, you will narrow down your modular future.
Cause and effect
Most Eurorack modules are close to useless on their own. So choosing a module could automatically forces you to buy some more. A VCO will most likely need a VCA and a function generator.
The Right Combination
But the biggest challenge of them all must be to find a combination that works for you, without having that burning ‘nicotine’ feeling, the feeling of wasted space and the urge to buy more. The ‘right’ combination does not exist. After a while, you may be able to imagine what a combination would/could sound like, even without actually patching the sound. In a way, the modular is also rewiring your brain.
Combining or mixing?
I am not sure about this. It would be obvious to combine many modules of a specific brand because they’re optimized for all kinds of use cases. However, I always seem to get average results when staying with one brand and mind blowing results when mixing stuff. But that could be just me. For instance, running a MakeNoise Shared System with a Plaits instead of a DPO may bring you a complete Universe of new sounds. Vice versa, running a DPO with a Frames module will make it sound spectacular. This is what’s making modular synthesis fun as well as obsessive. There’s always something new to explore. There are endless ‘what-if’ scenarios that can keep you up at night. So remember to buy a set of long cables and some mults for experimenting, mixing, matching and connecting the far sides of your rig.
The sound of your main VCO will define and constrain the sound of your system. The VCO is your most important choice. All other modules can be reused in many different roles but the VCO will always expose its signature sound. When you build a big case around a Plaits, people may be able to recognize it in many of your patches. This is not a bad thing, it’s just something to be aware of.
You need to be aware that modular music is limited. Yes, it is. Many people say ‘the sky is the limit, it can do anything you want’. This is true as well as bullshit. Unlimited possibilities makes people freeze and do nothing.
If you want unlimited production power you should get a MacBook Pro with Ableton Live 10 and a load of plugins and MIDI controllers. And it will save you many thousands of your favorite currency. Modular synths are very expensive and normal people just can’t buy all the modules they like. Most of them are monophonic, they can make one sound at a time. There are no presets, you’ll have to make it escape the boring buzz and inevitable bleeps. A modular can make amazing and mind blowing sounds, but you’ll need to discover them.
Follow your favorite music
The most important step of all is to determine if modular synths are able to produce the music style you’re aiming for. Here’s a summary of styles that work very well with modular.
Ambient is probably the easiest genre to dive into with the most gratifying results and appreciation. People just love to float on the tides of a modular system. There are plenty of video’s on YouTube that are very impressive. Here’s a great example of what you can achieve with three Moogs, a MakeNoise 0-coast and a Rhodes piano, with a little help from Ableton Live. You’ll be able to become productive with a 32 and a reverb.
Electronic Dance Music
Another easy genre is dance music, especially techno, minimal, grime and drum & bass. Probably Big Room too. Trance may already be too complex because it’s melodic and you’ll need to be able to prepare builds and drops. Good dance music has interesting repetition all over it. An obvious and entertaining mix would be ambient with a beat, so don’t confine yourself to a genre. Create a new genre that’s hard to copy with the PC! Eurorack has many modules which allows you to recreate an 808, 909 or 303, but that would be a silly thing to do. If you want an 808, get one. Here’s a dedicated techno modular: The Erica Synths Techno System. It can sound like an 808, but – please – don’t go there.
Experimental / abstract music
This is the perfect genre for modular systems because you can get away with making noise that doesn’t even closely resemble music. West Coast gear is very suitable for this purpose, because it involves different technology like Frequency Modulation, Wave Folding and Low Pass Gates to sculpt and transform sound. West Coast synthesis is born in the 60’s so it’s closely associated with rebels, science and hippies. In ‘I dream of Wires’ documentary, synth pioneer Morton Subotnik asked his friend Don Buchla to create a synth that should NOT have black/white keys and should break with conventional music by all means necessary. So West Coast is not just gear, it’s also a way of life. You’ll not find any creamy filters and four stage envelopes here, but you shouldn’t limit yourself to any coast when working in Eurorack. Combining modules with different philosophies will most likely get you things people have never heard before.
Experimental music doesn’t have to be ugly noise. Below you’ll find a video from Bana Haffar’s one take performance on the Make Noise Shared System. It’s absolutely gorgeous.
Cinematic music & sound design
The modular is the perfect instrument to create alien soundscapes, to scare the hell out of people and make the ceiling move. It’s perfect for sound effects and drones, for building tension and supporting heroes. A Cinematic Modular fuses normal every day music with the unexpected and the unknown. It provides a happy marriage between wonderful lead sounds, fat reverbs, alien drones, squeaks and pounding evolving patterns. Improvisation is key here. There are no rules, no coasts and no limits to the sonic possibilities. If you want to really move people emotionally, you’ll need to find a way to add organic and symphonic sounds too. But most important, you should be able to tell a story. Sound must become like an actor that moves between different scenes. So interesting repetition is not the main goal here. It’s happy accidents.
Start with cool combinations
A really great way to start with Eurorack is to focus on cool combinations. Let me give you an example. Three of most successful and most versatile modules you can buy are Mutable Instruments Plaits, Clouds and MakeNoise Maths. This combination can be used in all musical styles and will never let you down. Plaits is a macro oscillator, which means it can produce almost any sound you’ll ever need. It has East- and Westcoast sounds, noise, kicks, snares, physical modelling, even a talking thing. It has a built in VCA, low pass gate and FM. It can probably make a decent espresso too. Clouds is a texture synthesizer, which combines granular synthesis with very cool effects. It’s often used as an end-of-chain reverb, but it’s originally designed to do microsound and is intended to work with a random event source and lots of modulation.
So if you have a Clouds in your system, try to hook it up with a Marbles, Turing Machine, Ornament & Crime or WoggleBug and make it sound as intended at least once. You can also modulate with audio from Plaits, or use one of Clouds’ outputs as a modulation source.
Finally there’s the Eurorack’s number one function generator Maths which gives you mixing, evelope generation and frequency oscillation ranging from 25 minutes (now that’s an LFO) to audio. It’s also possible to get a true two voice analog sound out of it, including subharmonics and chords.
While it’s possible to play this combination all by itself, your modular will seriously benefit from a controller or keyboard. One of the most powerful and affordable controllers is the Arturia BeatStep Pro. Obviously, it will also need a powered case. Again, Arturia leads with the RackBrute 3U and 6U cases. Very cheap, very well built.
Keep it simple
A big system will not automatically make a big sound. Even if you have the luxury of owning a lot of modules, you’ll be facing less obvious problems like the lack of connectivity, reach-ability and having only two hands. I noticed I got much more productive with a small set because my ‘requirements’ can change with every new idea. I guess that’s the biggest advantage of Eurorack. You can learn to make better choices time over and over again, and bad choices can go to eBay without really losing value. There’s always somebody trying to make new mistakes.
I have created a demo setup with only these three modules in a RackBrute 6U case from Arturia. I also used a Rosie from MakeNoise to make it easier to record the output and I used and Expert Sleepers FH-1 to connect the BeatStep Pro through USB. I did not use the Rosie’s dual mono inputs because Clouds works in stereo. So I used the ‘send return’ instead. These two extra modules are not really needed if you connect Clouds directly to your audio interface. The BeatStep can also run on an adapter and normal patch cables. With a little multi tracking, staying away from the Plaits’ pitch knob and keeping the BeatStep with the right BPM you should be able to create a lot of cool music.
We’re going to explore more cool combinations on this website by adding ‘cool combination’ posts. I will also use this concept to create ‘cool combination’ videos for my youtube channel.