Modular Synthesis Demystified
By Gino Robair
Tue, 23 Jul 2013
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. 

Square One

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

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