Everything terrible, horrible, no good about modular synthesis…and why I love it
It’s hard to believe that it’s been over six months since I dove head first into the world of Eurorack modular synthesizers, so I thought that now would be a good time to write a retrospective on what my experience has been so far.
Modular synthesis is complicated.
After decades of being used to easy plug-and-play virtual instruments, the complexities of modular synthesis hit me hard. Just getting to the point of hearing a simple tone can require some pretty intricate patch cord routing.
Control Voltage (CV) isn’t as cut and dried as MIDI. It can be temperamental and yield some unpredictable results that can affect pitch, tuning, and timing (i.e. why am I playing an D# and hearing an Ab?).
Tuning is something that I never had to deal with using virtual instrument plug-ins (or digital synthesizers). But in the world of analog synthesis, I spend a lot of time tuning various VCOs to get them as close as possible to my software instruments.
In addition, most oscillator generators will occasionally need a more in-depth calibration, which involves adjusting tiny screws on the backside of the circuit board to achieve even tuning across the keyboard range. This is most definitely not my preferred way to spend an afternoon.
All of this just to hear a note?
Modular synthesis is expensive.
When I mentioned my interest in modular synthesis, several friends warned me how quickly the price tag can rise to an inordinate amount of cash. I thought they were being facetious, but they were right.
It’s been very difficult to stay within my limited budget and build what I would consider a fairly basic modular set-up. Just getting started with cases, power supplies, cables and MIDI-to-CV adapters can add up to several hundred dollars, and this is before actually purchasing a single module.
Even though the more affordable modules can be had for less than $200, consider that a basic monophonic set-up will require at least one oscillator, one ADSR, one LFO, one VCA, and one VCF. You’re probably looking at a grand or more.
There are of course much more expensive modules with intriguing names such as Pamela’s Pro Workout, Der Mann mit der Maschine Droid, Constellation Euclidean Rhythm Sequencer, and so on. I’ve found that modular synthesis can quickly become addictive, creating a compelling desire for new toys to mangle sounds in ever more bizarre ways.
Be warned that while modular synths can provide endless hours of fun, your bank account (and your significant other) might not be as enthusiastic about your new interest.
And to think it all started with this
Only to end with this
Modular synthesis needs space.
Eurorack real estate is a premium commodity in the modular world. My 108hp case seemed like it would hold all of the modules that I could possibly need, yet I was surprised at how quickly it filled up. [A standard 3U19″ studio rack accommodates 84hp (hp stands for horizontal pitch), and 1hp is 5.08mm or .2 inches.]
At the moment I own two MOOG cases as well as the Cre8Audio NiftyKEYZ modular keyboard with a whopping 112hp slots, and I’m still running out of slots. I learned to favor smaller 4hp or 8hp modules over wider ones, as well as multi-function modules that combine several different functions into a single unit.
And then I needed to make room in my crowded studio for all of this new gear. Some people like to stack the Eurorack cases vertically on walls like bookshelves. Others prefer to spread them across their desks.
I’m not a fan of either placement and would much prefer a keyboard-stand-style mounting option, which surprisingly does not seem to exist. Perhaps an enterprising manufacturer reading this article can tap into this market?
112hp is still not enough
Modular synthesis needs power.
Eurorack power supplies will typically provide around 1000 to 1500 mA of juice. Depending on the type of power supply, this is either split up between the +12V, -12V, and 5V rails or it provides the full amperage to each of the rails individually.
This might seem like a lot of juice, but once I started populating my case with modules I noticed that I was running out of power quickly. This can result in intermittent brown-outs that can damage the modules. I can’t stress the importance to always have adequate power for all of the various modules.
Thankfully, there are several online resources that offer convenient ways to calculate the total power requirements of modular rigs. One such site is https://www.modulargrid.net which features a comprehensive database of Eurorack modules from different manufacturers and a planner utility to populate a virtual set-up.
Modular synthesis needs cables.
Networking modules in novel and unusual ways is what modular synthesis is all about, so having plenty of cables in assorted lengths is a must. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to make a run to the local modular synth store to pick up extra patch cables of various lengths and colors. As my modular collection grows, so does the need to run more and more complex networks between the various patch points.
Power cables are also a necessity. While many module manufacturers ship a power cable along with the module, some don’t. In addition, DIY modules (the subject of a future article) do not come with a power cable.
Another thing to keep in mind is that while most modules use a 16 to 10-pin connector, some will require a 16 to 16-pin connector. All this to say that one can never have enough cables!
You really think this is enough cables?!
Modular synthesis does not “play nice” with DAWs.
Unlike outboard MIDI devices like keyboards and drum machines, modular synthesis really prefers to exist within its own ecosystem. Trying to interface with a DAW can be an exercise in frustration, as dealing with the inherent complexity of MIDI-to-CV and CLOCK signals will quickly test anyone’s patience.
Even something as simple as signal routing can present some challenges. You might find yourself with several audio outputs that need to be combined, either with a mixer or with an audio interface with plenty of inputs.
I would also note that the fleeting in-the-moment workflow of modular synthesis can run counter to the precision and repeatability of plug-ins and automation. It constantly becomes necessary to bounce sounds to disk, since it’s nearly impossible to recreate the same exact sound after the patching has been disconnected.
Sometimes even leaving everything patched overnight to continue working the next day can result in a different-sounding patch as subtle conditions such as room temperature and variations in the power grid can affect the end result.
DAW to modular
Modular synthesis is wonderful.
By now you’re asking: if modular synthesis is so convoluted and unfriendly, why do it?
There are solutions and workarounds for everything I’ve outlined above. But even if there weren’t, the creative possibilities and joy that modular synthesis has brought me is well worth all the hoops I’ve had to jump through.
To me part of the appeal is the visceral and physical connection to the act of creating music. The visual and tactile nature of the medium can make complex synthesis concepts much more intuitive and approachable.
In the past I avoided programming keyboards and plug-ins due to the difficulty of understanding how one parameter affects another. Once I understood signal flow within the modular synth context, I began to feel much more comfortable making tweaks and adjustments in more traditional synths and software (see what I did there?).
Perhaps what I enjoy the most about modular synthesis is that exploration is not only welcome, it’s highly encouraged. Modular synthesis invites happy accidents. Often I’ll plug a cable into the wrong patch point only to discover something unexpectedly cool. Mistakes can yield unimaginably interesting results!
Modular synthesis is all about embracing imperfections and celebrating them. So what if the oscillators are slightly out of tune, or if the timing is slightly off, or the LFO is a bit glitchy? Perfection is kinda boring!
What I’ve discovered in these past few months is that modular synthesis is as much about the journey as it is about the destination. Every time I switch-on my Eurorack, I embark on a new sonic adventure. I might not know exactly where it will take me, but I know that it will be someplace wonderfully fun and unexpected — and I wouldn’t want it any other way.