Modular Synthesis Demystified
Not unlike vinyl records, modular synths have worked their way back into
the mainstream with a vengeance. Once the domain of university music
departments, cerebral and deep-pocketed electronic composers, and
progressive rock icon Keith Emerson, hardware modulars are now used by
all sorts of musicians from working keyboardists to EDM creators such as
Deadmau5. If you’re modular-curious and considering starting your own
system, our mission in this article is to tell you what you need to know
before spending a dime.
While modular synths have had a reputation as being for
niche enthusiasts, mainstream manufacturers like Akai, Arturia, Korg,
MOTU, and Propellerhead all have products that support analog control
voltage in one way or another. Remarkably, the modules themselves are
more affordable than ever, and the number available has grown
exponentially in the last decade. Because you can spec out every element
of your synth, a hardware modular offers maximum flexibility. Best of
all, you can assemble a system that fits your budget and needs, whether
the synth must be portable enough for touring or fully integrated into
your DAW. Many modular owners started small, researched new modules
worth lusting after, and added one or two every other paycheck, building
up gradually to large, impressive systems.
The web of a modular’s patch cords looks both exciting and
daunting to the newcomer. But if you’ve ever run a keyboard through a
chain of effects pedals, you’ve already got the idea: A modular synth is
a collection of devices that you connect just like stompboxes on a
pedalboard. However, synth modules offer greater flexibility than
stompboxes because, in addition to passing audio, they accept and/or
generate control voltages (CV), which can modify sound parameters in
real time with greater resolution than MIDI.
The first step in building a system is to determine what
you want it to do. Besides their adaptability for lead and bass duties,
modulars can be used for sound design; for sequencing; for signal
processing pre-recorded or live input by means of filtering,
waveshaping, and modulation; or for some combination thereof. Although
you might configure your instrument for a specific purpose, many of its
modules can do double or triple duty. For example, the filters you chose
for your synth can also process drum samples from your iPad or DAW.
While a modular gives you extensive modulation and routing
options compared to a preconfigured synth, one thing you lose is
instant patch recall: Every cable and parameter has to be set manually.
In addition, your modular will likely be less compact and portable,
especially if you’re used to virtual synths. And, of course, a modular
system will cost more per feature than a “slab” synth. However, the
exponential increase in sound quality and timbral diversity will be
worth the extra patching time and additional desk space.
Next: Don't Be Analog Retentive