For Jeremy Greenspan, there are numerous ways in which modular synths aid his creative process: “For me the appeal is that there are fewer decisions being made for you by the instrument maker. There are no presets. No two modular systems are the same. The sounds are often unique but, more importantly for me, using a modular synth often takes your preconceived planning out of the equation. Modular synths are usually unpredictable, the results of patching are also unpredictable, so you usually get a pattern, a sound, a sequence or rhythm that you didn’t predict. Writing with modulars is usually more about capturing a moment. A sort of synchronistic moment happens when you write. It’s totally unique. Modular synths can take your ego out of the equation – which, in music, is a blessing.”
One of the most important factors in determining why modular synths are so highly praised by artists and producers is that most of the companies creating modular equipment are owned, run and staffed by musicians. Since modular synth manufacturers tend to make music themselves, it’s only logical that they should focus on musicians’ needs when designing new products.
“I was a musician before I was an electronics designer, and always will be,” says Stacy Gaudreau of hexinverter.net. “Generally speaking, my module creations arise from personal needs. I’m usually coming up with the most ideas for new modules when I’m spending a lot of time with my own modular system and discovering needs for new modules. sympleSEQ, for example was thought of because I was once a beginner DIYer and wanted to build a sequencer, but was intimidated by the parts count and wiring complexity. So, I developed sympleSEQ so that other beginners could have an easier time of things.”
I was a musician before I was an electronics designer, and always will be.
The design process for Intellijel is similar. “For many years I’ve been producing electronic music, mainly deep techno and ambient stuff,” says van Tijn. “I’m always considering what I would personally want to use to create music that has a lot of rhythmic structure and melody. As the company has been growing I’ve had the good fortune to connect directly with quite a few musicians I really admire and am influenced by and I carefully listen to any feedback they give us on our designs.”
Stacy Gaudreau’s one-man business, hexinverter.net, is his primary source of income. Entirely self-taught when he started the company, he now uses the profits from sales of modules and DIY kits to fund his electronics studies at college in Manitoba, Canada. “I have always been incredibly fascinated with electronics,” he explains. “As a child, I would spend a lot of time taking apart electronics and examining inside of them. Music – and especially electronic music – has always been an enormous part of my life, so it was no surprise that my interests eventually collided. As soon as I was able to have enough of my own space to build a small lab, I began to experiment with electronics and learn how to design circuits for musical synthesis. I’m a devoted do-it-yourselfer.”
Gaudreau’s experience is similar to dozens of other small-scale designers and manufacturers. At present, modular synth manufacturing isn’t generally a cut-throat industry of money-motivated businessmen looking for ways to crush the competition. “Generally speaking, the modular synth industry is full of incredibly creative people. The community is also very tight-knit and so there are a lot of warm fuzzy feelings all around,” says Gaudreau. “Just go to any muffwiggler.com DIY forum thread where someone’s developing a project and you’ll see just how appreciative the consumers of DIY projects are to have designers selling circuit boards and kits for their designs. The modular synthesis industry is incredibly inviting of new ideas and start-ups. I find that there’s a lot less aggression in this market, but there are exceptions to that rule. Any time there’s money to be made, you’ll always have some crooked individual trying to spoil the fun for everyone else. Thankfully the community is so tight-knit and supportive of one another that cruel people are generally weeded out fairly quickly.”
Modcan’s Bruce Duncan welcomes the increased competition from small companies, which he attributes to the rise of Eurorack and increased interest in electronic music in America. “The scene has definitely transformed from being a very esoteric hobby populated by a few well-heeled ‘in the know’ participants into a much more popular and wide spread phenomenon,” he tells us. “The new makers definitely keep me on my toes. Especially now that I’m also doing Eurorack modules. It is still a relatively small niche market, though. While the community’s still growing, nobody building modulars is doing it at a level compared with the early electric guitar manufacturers, for example.”
With so much choice on offer, Daniel van Tijn explains that from a manufacturer’s point of view it’s important to offer something different to the competition: “Right now there are about 80 companies and over 700 Eurorack modules, so you definitely need some way to stand out. At Intellijel we like the idea of modules that have a foundation capable of clean and precise sound but can be manipulated to go well beyond that state. You can always make a clean sound dirty but it’s difficult to do the opposite. Our modules cover a very broad range of synthesis techniques and sounds. We have some modules that are clearly influenced by classic designs but we always try to modernise and improve on what’s already been done. We’re also always looking at new things we can do but at the end of the day it’s extremely important that the resultant module is highly musical and useful and not just a novelty.”