Modular synthesizers are ridiculously expensive compared to running Ableton Live on your laptop and a midi controller. It’s often said that the PC can do much more than a modular, and yes, that’s true. If you like to create full songs and rich arrangements, the modular will feel limited, complex and alien. Modular synths don’t have a save button, they forget your sounds once the cables are removed. Most modular synths just play one or two voices, and if you’re lucky it has a stereo output.
Before you dive into the modular world, you’ll need to make a few decisions. You need a distinct goal. Your modular should represent the music you love. If you like minimal, ambient, techno, experimental, sound design or just noise, the Modular will be excellent. If you like song structure, chords and melodies, you’d be better off with a performance keyboard, a laptop and/or a midi controller.
The best way to describe modular music is by drones, patterns, movement, poly rhythms, chance, bleeps and lots, lots, lots of effects. It’s interesting repetition. Some people may look down on modular synths as ‘not real music’ because there’s usually no keyboard and it doesn’t require any musical theory or skill. But that’s not true. A modular synth is like a guitar, it’s a real instrument generating sounds with voltage. Designing a pattern that remains interesting for a long time is very difficult. You’ll have to face the same challenges a composer has to face when he/she’s behind the piano. You have to create music totally from scratch, without the help of a preset or patch library. Getting a complex oscillator to sound beautiful could be compared to bowing a beautiful note on a violin. It needs expression. The sound needs to tell a story or share an emotion.
A modular synth can be any form, size or configuration. It’s great fun to go to modulargrid.com and create your dream machine. But dream machines don’t always work well. You’ll need a dream system. All modules need to work together, they’re kind of lost on their own. Integrated synths use a clear system of LFO’s, VCO’s, ADSRs. filters, VCA’s and effects. The LFO creates movement, the VCO creates sound, the VCA changes the volume, the filter changes the ‘color’ and the ADSR provides a shape for volume- and color changes over time.
All these components are available as separate modules in the modular world, ready to mix and match. There are thousands of modules to choose from. Nothing is more exciting and challenging than picking your first module.