Modular … Thoughts Revisited

March 11, 2022 1 By GerenM
Keith Emerson playing a Korg Oasys at Ramshead On Stage on June 20, 2006, with Moog modular in background.

Several months ago, I wrote a piece outlining four reasons that I no longer wanted to build a modular rig. But, as I write this post today, on the sixth anniversary of the death of Keith Emerson, I’ve had a bit of a change of heart.

Because … well … things change.

Probably the biggest change since I wrote that piece last July is the realization that may have been thinking about how I might use a modular synth in the wrong way — my preconceived notion was that it should be something that would “playable” like my Kronos, or any other keyboard synth. But, after watching some videos that included interviews with some of the pioneers of electronic music while preparing the post I just published about Suzanne Ciani, as well as some upcoming posts I’ve been working on, it occurred to me that while a modular synthesizer could be “played” like any other keyboard instrument, the strength of such a system is that it invites experimentation beyond the keyboard.

1010music nanobox|lemondrop granular synthesizer

With that in mind, the same became true of my “requirement” that patches be able to be stored — it’s just not the nature of the thing to be able to do that, so I need to change my perspective on what a modular synth could be all about. It is a place to experiment, making one-of-a-kind moments that are “one and done,” but certainly recorded. And really, from something recorded could very possibly come the seed of new sound grains that could be incorporated into sounds for the Microfreak (now that it has the capability of using user samples) or the Model:Samples or some sort of iPad or PC app/plug-in or the new 1010music nanobox|lemondrop granular synthesizer or Bitbox Micro (a Eurorack module with full sampling and editing functions, plus a whole lot more). Again, by altering my perspectives on how such a setup could be used, I can see beyond simply playing the synthesizer and allowing its unique textures to become part of the greater composition.

I couldn’t find any short “intro to the lemondrop” videos, so I’ve put together a playlist that will allow you to pick and choose what you want to see. The list starts out with some demos that people have done, and moves into more detail from there.
Another playlist, this time looking at the 1010music bitbox micro. This one starts with an intro, and some demos and deep dives follow.

Another point in that previous equation was cost. Again, my preconceived notion, and perhaps a bit of prejudice, was that I had to start with Moog’s Mother 32 or Subharmonicon and a DFAM — two “semi-modular” synths — a $1400 or more proposition. The reality is that starting with a semi-modular devices is a perfectly viable option, and is definitely the path I would follow. The cost wouldn’t need to be ridiculously high if I were to put my prejudices aside and just buy something from Behringer, like the upcoming Proton or existing Neutron and a similarly priced multi-voiced percussive synth which can be mounted in a Eurorack frame, and supplement them with other modules and with some of my existing gear like the Microfreak and the Keystep 37, both of which have sequencing abilities and offer both MIDI and CV outputs.

Moog Mother 32 semi-modular desktop synthesizer. Image courtesy Moog Music.

As an aside …

Comparing the Neutron to the Moog Mother 32 … the Behringer has two oscillators with 5 wave shapes to the Moog’s single oscillator with two wave shapes, and the Behringer oscillators can sweep between wave shapes where the Mother is switched either/or. The Neutron’s LFO is also uniquely morphable, it has two complete ADSR envelops, sample and hold, and effects. Unfortunately, there’s no onboard sequencer, but it is almost infinitely patchable — as if it’s specifically designed to be made part of a Eurorack setup. And, it’s less than half the price of the Moog. Yeah, a person could buy two Neutrons for the price of a Mother 32, and have money left over to buy dinner. The Proton looks to bring even more to the table, doubling up on pretty much everything, but for about the same price (I’m guessing that the price will also creep up a little bit by the time it actually ships, but it will still be considerably less than the Moog). Oh, and Neutrons (or, presumably Protons) can be poly-chained, after a fashion to increase the voice count to make something resembling chords. However, there’s no way to ensure that the patches on each unit are exactly the same. But, perhaps that’s part of the beauty of this concept.

But, I digress …

The point is that with these thoughts in mind, a Eurorack system is definitely back on the table. But not before I acquire a Modal Electronics Cobalt (either a 5s or the 8) as it appears that I will be having an actual need for that in the very near future.