The inherent challenge of modular synths makes them a very different proposition to a conventional compact synth, with fixed signal routing and a limited number of options. Is there a certain personality type that gets drawn to that kind of approach? Through his role as producer of I Dream Of Wires, Jason Amm has met hundreds of modular synth enthusiasts. He suggests that there are a handful of different characteristics which might draw musicians to modular gear, but that there is one common theme: “Across the board, I would say that modular synthesisers attract obsessive – or at least very passionate – people. You have to understand something about synthesis to even get a sound out of a modular synth, and they demand a lot of knowledge to get the best out of them, so I think it’s also fair to say that all modular synthesiser users possess a lot of intelligence.”
Across the board, I would say that modular synthesisers attract obsessive people.
Modular synths reward users who think outside the box. What if I patched that signal over there? What if I hooked this module up to that one? Jeremy Greenspan suggests that musicians who take a methodical, almost analytical approach to making music might be best suited to working with modulars: “I think the tendency is to want to use everything right away. But you often get the most out of it if you learn modules one at a time. Get excited by each module’s capabilities. Figure out its surplus, what it can achieve above and beyond what it was intended to do. This is often easier with modular than with traditional synths, because often the designers themselves don’t have fixed ideas about a module’s specific applications.”
In the box
Modular synths can be entirely self-contained affairs, with sequencers and effects built into the setup alongside synth elements, but not everyone wants to work in such a resolutely analogue, hardware-focussed way. But that retro approach isn’t the only option. Thanks to a handful of companies developing hybrid systems which combine analogue hardware with modern software control, it’s now relatively easy to integrate modular equipment with more contemporary, computer-based music-making methods.
Andrew Ostler runs Expert Sleepers, a small company pioneering ground-breaking DAW control of analogue equipment with its Silent Way software and a range of interface modules. Both Holden and Butler cite Silent Way as a key element in their setup. Ostler explains the concept: “Modulars can be huge fun on their own, but if you want to combine them with a DAW at any level, from basic tempo sync to full-blown two-way integration, I believe the software approach that Silent Way offers is the way forward. The goal of Silent Way, and the Expert Sleepers modules, is to provide a much tighter level of integration between DAW and synth than has ever been possible using, say, a traditional MIDI/CV converter.”
Ostler explains that the Silent Way approach offers more accurate timing than MIDI and allows the DAW to become a perfectly integrated element of the synth itself: “You can create tempo-synced LFOs, envelopes, sequencers – all in perfect time and under familiar software control via parameter automation. Of course, you can take it further. Why limit the DAW to producing CVs? It can receive them too – just as it can receive audio – for recording, slicing, looping or applying effects. So you can use a software module as just another module in the synth, and so you can control software instruments – and indeed the DAW itself – with CVs from the modular.”
Dominic Butler agrees with Ostler’s assessment of the benefits of this approach: “The ES-3 module has opened up the live possibilities of modular synths massively. I used to have to drag a Doepfer MAQ16 around with me on stage. Whilst playing one song I’d be figuring out how to program the next one, which could be a complete nightmare. Most of the stuff I do in Factory Floor is based around a heavy arp or bassline, so Silent Way plus Ableton is like having the world’s biggest slash smallest sequencer!”
For all their clearly apparent sonic versatility, one of the biggest criticisms of modular synths is that users spend so much time tweaking sounds and experimenting with different patches that they end up forgetting the main point of the synth: to make music.
Perhaps the ultimate rebuttal of this criticism comes from Amm himself, who set himself the challenge of creating the soundtrack for I Dream Of Wires from scratch using nothing but modular synths. “When it was decided that I was to become a part of the film, I suggested that my goal should be to come out of this with an all-modular soundtrack for the film,” he recalls. “My music is very melodic and structured so I wanted to make sure that the soundtrack was true to that, while also showcasing some new sounds and synthesis methods that only the modular can offer.
“I was definitely worried that my obsessive nature could lead to me becoming a full-time fiddler if I were to get a modular, so completing this album was an important point to my story in the film. Honestly it is a bit of a challenge; I get a lot of satisfaction out of completing a song, but it does usually feel like work getting it to that finished song stage. On the other hand, tinkering on the modular is a bit like a drug for me, it’s like a trance or meditation, and sometimes I want to just disappear into that hole for days and not have to think about turning any of it into a song. In a way I sometimes feel jealous of all of those modular users whose only aspiration is to make weird noises and maybe upload that to YouTube – for anyone who is obsessed with the sound of synthesisers, the tinkering is usually the most exciting part.”
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