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Everything You Need to Know to Get Into Hardware Modular Synths

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When you first see a modular synth, you may be reminded of an old telephone center, where operators made connections manually with cables. If you haven't heard of these large instruments before, it's better late than never. They're coming back, and leading audio and music producer magazines have been covering the topic this year. In this tutorial we'll give you all you need to know to get your own.


What Is a Modular Synth?

buchla-200e-GeschnittenBrot-flickr-wikipedia
Buchla 200e / Photo by GeschnittenBrot flickr wikipedia

A modular synth is an instrument that got its name by being made from various modules. The main module types are oscillator (VCO), filter (VCF), amplifier (VCA), LFO, envelope, effects and utility modules.

Traditionally these are controlled by voltage, but there are digital modules as well. Wires are used to connect the modules—the cables can be small, big jacks or banana, and are always mono. On classic fixed synths the standard patching is VCO -> VCF -> VCA.

Beginnings

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Moog modular / Photo by Kimi95 wikipedia

The story of modulars dates back to the 1960s, when Robert Moog and Donald Buchla created the first synthesizer prototypes at the opposite sides of USA, at about the same time. The "East Coast" and "West Coast" synthesis styles are named after Moog's and Buchla's approaches accordingly.

Fortunately nowadays we don't have to spend the combined price of a house and a car as you did in the 1960s and 70s.

Why Have One System?

If you just want to try something new, break out of the box, or want to buy a medium priced fixed architecture hardware synth, the modular can be your answer and more.

The big difference is the free patching and control voltages are not quantised, as digital synths are. If you move a pot, you hear it is continuous, so the sonic variations are broader. The character of your modules will also differ from anything you have heard outside the modular scene.

Formats

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Doepfer A-100 / Photo by Nina Richards wikipedia

There are a number of modular formats based on voltages, sizes, power supply, with different price range. Currently the Eurorack is the most popular because it's cheap, small and has the widest selection of modules (about 80 brands and 700 modules). The height of the systems are measured in Us (3 to 6U, 3U = 5.25 inch or 133.35mm).

  • Eurorack and Frac Rack. The smallest system. 3U height, 1/8 inch jacks.
  • Buchla, Serge. The most expensive format, 4U height, banana cables.
  • Modcan, Moog, Synthesizers.com (DOTCOM for short). Medium priced, 5U height, 1/4 inch jacks.
  • Wiard. The tallest one, 6U height, bantam jacks.
  • ARP, Roland, EMS. These are other types of vintage systems.

Important Brands to Know in Euroland

For starting out I would recommend checking out these brands. The list is ordered in price range from least to most expensive.

  • Doepfer. The German brand that started the Eurorack format in 1997. They have about 100 different modules, and mostly all are very cheap.
  • Analogue Solutions, Analogue Systems, Pittsburgh Modular. A bit expensive than the the previous brand. Lots of choices here as well.
  • Intellijel. A bit more expensive than the previous brands, and have some West Coast modules as well.
  • Malekko. They have some Wiard-inspired modules.
  • Metasonix. Probably the only brand to have modules based on tubes.
  • Modcan. Expensive, and have a small selection in Euro, but very interesting modules.
  • Make Noise. 14 modules, but with very dense functionality. Modules are West Coast style, and have higher prices.
  • Cwejman. Probably the most expensive modules.

Estimated Prices

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Serge modular / Photo by Mikael Altemark wikipedia flickr

To give you a point of comparison, here are some oscillators to check out. Please note that the currencies are different.

Some designs are single oscillators, while others are dual, and are more expensive. Also don't forget that digital modules are better for FM modulation, because the pitch is perfect when you use it properly (in a musical context).

Generally, basic oscillators come with the four simple waveforms, which are sine, triangle, square and saw. I think beginners should experiment with one or two simple VCOs first.

  • Doepfer VCO: 140 EUR
  • Pittsburgh VCO: 189 EUR
  • DOTCOM Q106 VCO: 195 USD
  • Intellijel Dixie2: 197 EUR
  • Blacet VCO2100: 275 USD
  • Metasonix R54 Supermodule VCO/VCF (single oscillator with tubes): 294 EUR
  • Livewire AFG: 399 USD
  • The Harvestman Hertz Donut Mk2 (dual oscillator): 475 USD
  • WMD PDO: 475 USD
  • Cwejman VCO-2RM (dual oscillator): 536 EUR
  • Wiard 341 classic VCO: 605 GBP
  • Serge M-Class (dual Oscillator): 1600 USD
  • Buchla 261e Complex Waveform Generator (dual Oscillator): 1600 USD
  • Buchla 259e Twisted Waveform Generator (dual Oscillator): 1600 USD

Starter Systems and Suggestions

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Doepfer style! / Photo by Adam Burucs

Configurations

Every modular can be customised to your needs, as you can buy whatever module you want. You can buy, sell, trade or swap as you go and gain experience. You will need a case to put the modules in, with power and cables. Small jacks can be divided with stackcables.

If you want to just jump into this game without too much thinking you can choose a preconfigured complete system. Make Noise, Doepfer, and Pittsburgh supply these, for example.

But to begin, this list can be helpful:

  • Too minimal setup:
    1 VCO + 1 VCF + 1 VCA + 1 ADSR + 1 LFO + MIXER
  • Better minimum setup:
    2 VCO + 1 VCF + 1 VCA + 2 ADSR + 2 LFO + MIXER
  • More advanced setup:
    3 VCO + 2 VCF + 1 VCA + 2 ADSR + 2 LFO + NOISE + RING MOD + 2 MIXER + SAMPLE AND HOLD
  • Minimal west coast setup:
    COMPLEX VCO + FUNCTION GENERATOR + RANDOM SOURCE + LOW PASS GATE + VCA + MIXER

Controllers

Beyond a keyboard, you can use some other controllers to manipulate sound with modulars: step sequencer, touch controller, joystick-like modules. If you want to use a MIDI keyboard, you will need a MIDI 2 CV module which will function as an interface. After that, you have to use its gate and note signal.

The Future

It's probably a safe estimate that there are only 10,000 modular users in the whole world. I'm optimistic that this number will go up to maybe 20-30,000 in the next five years.

As more users step into this scene and buy modules, the prices will become a bit cheaper, and this will help to reach more people.


Artists Who Use or Used Modulars

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Custom made 5U / Photo by Adam Burucs

This is a short list in almost random order.

  • Morton Subotnick (Buchla)
  • Herb Deutsch (Moog)
  • Hans Zimmer (Moog)
  • Jean-Michel Jarre (ARP)
  • Depeche Mode (Serge, Eurorack, DOTCOM)
  • Vangelis (ARP)
  • Beatles (Moog)
  • Deadmau5 (Modcan, Eurorack, Buchla)
  • Keith Emerson (Moog)
  • Vince Clark (Serge)
  • Daft Punk (Modcan)
  • Richie Hawtin (Serge)
  • Tangerine Dream (Moog)
  • Trent Reznor / Nine Inch Nails (Eurorack, Serge, Buchla)
  • Moby (Serge)
  • Stevie Wonder (Moog, Serge)
  • Carl Craig (Eurorack)
  • Erik Norlander (Moog, DOTCOM)
  • Jamiroquai (Roland)
  • Kirk Degiorgio (Eurorack, Serge)
  • Chris Carter (Eurorack)
  • Zombie Nation (Roland)
  • Alessandro Cortini (Buchla)
  • Orbital (Roland)
  • Richard Devine (Eurorack)
  • Deepack (DOTCOM)
  • Luke Vibert (Roland)

Conclusion

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Eurorack case with Make Noise and Metasonix / Photo by Adam Burucs

Right now is probably the best time to get into modulars. The prices are much lower than in the old days. If you already have one, tell us about it in the comments.

Happy patching!

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