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Recurring Thoughts About Modular Synthesizers

There was a recent discussion on one of my favorite Discord servers about the allure of modular synthesizers. You may remember that I have toyed with putting together a modular rig several times over the years. One of the participants in the discussion commented that after watching several other members’ making music with their modular systems on live streams that he was almost caught up in the gear lust because it looked fun. My response to him was:

I can tell you from my experiences many years ago with a small-but-mighty Moog that it is fun. It’s like collage art. You start with a collection of raw bits of flotsam and jetsam, and from there build something new. And when you’re done, and you’ve recorded your work, you tear it all down and start anew, each creation being a new creative adventure. In the case of the old Moog, each track was it’s own adventure, as you could play just one note at a time. Playing a triad required three passes across the tape.

I loved it!

And, I’m simultaneously so glad that I don’t have to do it that way anymore.

I, too, occasionally toy with the idea of building a modular setup. I get into Modular Grid and design racks and list out all the things I’d want. And then come to the realization that I already have a modular music making system! My DAW has replaced the multi-track tape deck. And the modular synthesizer is replaced by my new “modules”: VSTs like Pigments and Vital, or even the somewhat restricted VSTs like Arturia’s Augmented series and U-he’s Diva, and my synthesizers like the Polybrute and Take 5 and opsix. All of these provide me the pieces of that musical collage. It’s up to me to arranged those pieces into something resembling sounds, and from there, a piece of music.

And, if I want to record it one note at a time, I still can.

And I love it!

The conversation grew and flowed for another hour or so, mostly, before transitioning to another topic — being a “productive artist”. Whatever that means.

I still entertain the idea of a small modular setup from time to time. I still remember my very visceral response to creating music on an original Moog modular synthesizer and recording to multitrack tape many years ago, and sometimes think, wistfully, that doing that again would be fun and interesting. I follow along with the modular discussions on that same Discord server … and there are many of them. And I’ve noticed one thing — as time has gone on, modules have changed drastically. I’m not talking about just the physical format.

When I first used a synthesizer, things were simple. You had oscillators that made some sort of a noise, and things to alter that noise like filters and amplifiers and wave shapers, and things to modulate and control everything. You hooked the things together in some experimental order, and if you were lucky, a beautiful sound came out that you could record and combine with other sounds to make music. It was, relatively speaking, simple.

Today, the parts are different and increasingly complicated. Microprocessors have entered the space, and many modules have the ability to be altered by loading new firmware into them. While I suppose this is the natural progression of things, it becomes, to my mind, to be not much different from simply using a computer as your production tool. In other words, what is the point of building a modular system today?

I suppose one could argue that controlling a modular rig is a more tactile experience, and I could almost agree with that, but for the fact that as computer/software-based synthesizers have progressed over the years, so to have the options for control! In my own studio, every knob, slider, button, or switch can be used to generate control messages that can be sent to the software on my computer to perform the same functions as those on modular synthesizers. And, unlike a modular, everything can be saved and revisited.

The latest iteration of The Disaster Room. Every knob, slider, switch, and button can be used for control of software, should I desire.

But maybe that’s part of the point. Maybe there’s something to the notion that a performance made with a modular system is special because it exists only once (unless, of course, the performance is recorded) and is largely inalterable and stands or falls on its own merits. Though, to that I say, I can do that using VSTs in a DAW as well (but that’s not a conventional use).

In the end, I still don’t know where I come down on owning a modular system. Maybe it’s a nostalgia thing? I certainly don’t need one. I can accomplish my musical goals without one. I feel that they’re somewhat like a boat, and I know that’s something I do not want again.

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