Music

Four Reasons Why I No Longer Want a Modular Synth

In the past, I may have alluded to my desire to own a modular synth. I’ve held onto that desire since, well, I can’t even think of a time when I didn’t want to own and/or build one. Until, quite literally, just now.

This Moog Model 55 modular synthesizer is similar to one I experimented with during my brief time as a college student.
— Moog Music image

What’s strange about this revelation is that there probably couldn’t be a better time to start building one. With the maturation of the Eurorack standard, and the ever growing number of modules available, it would be possible to create just about any kind of synthesizer I could want, with numerous oscillators and wave shapers and envelopes and sequencers and arpeggiators — the list of “things” is nearly endless.

Moog Modular sound example
Compositions made primarily with Moog’s Mother-32 or Subharmicon combined with the Moog DFAM.

I realize, of course, that I could start such a system with a “semi-modular” synth, such as Moog‘s Mother-32 or Subharmonicon, and a DFAM (Drummer From Another Mother), (or all three) to build a powerful and productive system. To that, I could add additional modules as my needs and wallet warranted. And that was a possibility that I did consider.

After all, who wouldn’t want the option of nearly endless sonic options?

But, this proliferation of modules — and choices — has become one of my personal arguments against building a modular synth, at least at this time. The “analysis paralysis” that goes along with deciding where to start on such a project is a very reason why one could spend a lot of time and, eventually, a lot of money, and never quite get to what should be the very reason for building a synth in the first place: creating music! You see, when I first got interested in electronic music, things were simple. There weren’t so many options, so you built a synth, and got to work.

The wide range of creative options in modular is not lost on me. Almost any module can be patched to almost any other in a nearly endless variety of ways. Non-traditional sound shaping methods, such as using audio to affect other audio directly, or using audio as a control source, is a possibility in modular synthesis. These concepts lead to a lot of experimentation in the molestation of sound. And, when you can do that, some really neat things can happen. Once.

Moog Mother-32, Subharmonicon, and DFAM.
— Moog Music image

Which brings me to my second argument against building a modular synth: Once I develop a sound I like, I’d like the possibility of saving it for use later. With a modular setup, that can be difficult at best, and sometimes impossible.

Of course, I could simply multi-sample the sound into my Korg Kronos 2. But, in reality, it’s not that simple. Much of the additional control over the sound becomes lost at that point. Once sampled, most of the deep parameter control, such as morphing the underlying waveform, or changing how filters or waves evolve over time, becomes locked in place, leaving, mostly filter and envelope as the only remaining variables.

The performance of a part using the modular could also be recorded as a track, and played back for performance (that is, BTW, one of the reasons I want to make music — to share and perform in a live venue). Again, that’s a real possibility with the Kronos 2. But playing with tracks precludes the possibility of live improvisation. Even in my cover band, I often improvise or alter my parts, depending on what others in the band are doing and the reaction of the crowd.

MIDI-to-CV options do exist to allow outboard control and sequencing of modular synth setups, but the patching and initial control settings remain. Even in a relatively simple setup using the aforementioned Moog semi-modular synths can leave a lot of patches to wire and controls to set to back to where we once belonged — if getting back to the exact sound is even possible.

Hand-in-hand with the logistical issues around re-patching a modular setup between songs is that of getting the thing to a gig, especially were it to grow. So, there’s the third argument against adding modular synth to my sonic arsenal. Again, I want to be able to use my gear to perform, and I’m not blessed with a cadre of roadies and keyboard techs who accompany me to gigs. I saw the Keith Emerson Band at a small venue in Annapolis back in 2006. He brought the Moog, I think mostly because he felt his fans expected him to. He used it exactly once, with the ribbon controller, the entire night, relying mostly on his Korg Oasys and what I think was a Yamaha for synth sounds. (I apologize for the poor image quality, by the way. They were taken with a Nikon D70s, the most disappointing digital camera I’ve ever owned). In any case, everything I play has to be able to ride in my pickup truck and be carted, setup and played by yours truly!

Want to know what happened to Keith Emerson’s Moog, and other keyboards after his death? Read all about it here: Whatever Happened to Keith Emerson’s Moog?

This and more can be found at Synth and Software.

Finally, as those of you who’ve been following me for any length of time know, everything I purchase has to deliver in terms of bang-for-the-buck value. And, as cool sounding as a modular or semi-modular setup might be (you can go back and listen to that Moog EP again if you want), those three pieces come at what I consider to be a pretty high price. The three synths and the little stand come in at a little over U$2,000 at the time of this writing. That is a lot of money. While I’ve become less and less the cheapskate that I once was (I did buy a new Korg Kronos, after all), I’m not sure there are enough tricks in those ponies to warrant that kind of expenditure. And, of course, that would be just the beginning, I’m sure, for something that wouldn’t be able to be used the way I would want it to be.

So there, in a bag of mixed nuts, are four reasons that I’ve let go of a nearly fifty-year-old dream to own a modular synthesizer. Everything that I’ve discussed can be had in more portable, and maybe less expensive alternatives. And, maybe I’ll address those in a future post or vidcast.