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Getting Started With Modular Synths - Easy to Follow Guide

In the bleep-bloop world of synthesisers, which is already a little whacky to begin with, it doesn’t get much more quirky than the wonderful world of modular synthesis. Retro, futuristic, spellbinding and mystical all at the same time, modular synths have been enjoying a big comeback of late. The joy of analogue sounds coupled with the chance to build your own synthesiser is very appealing to a lot of serious electronic music heads.

It was the year 1963 when the R.A. Moog Co on the East Coast and Buchla on the West Coast were curiously both designing the world’s first modular systems simultaneously — which of the two got there first is the stuff of legend.

If you’re curious about meandering into the world of modular, but find all the tangled cables and the idea of constructing a cabinet of synths a little bewildering, Headliner is here to demystify what modular is and show how you can ease yourself in. It’s ultimately incredibly rewarding, as it’s an avenue of music in which you can create truly unique sounds that are entirely your own.

With that in mind, it’s little surprise that such artists as James Blake, Radiohead, Timbaland, and classically the likes of Brian Eno and Tangerine Dream use modular systems to achieve their sounds. But what even is modular synthesis? Well, one easy way to look at it is to compare a regular synthesiser with keys. Let’s say you have a Roland Juno. You switch it on, you choose a synth sound, and when you play the keys, that sound plays also. Roland has predetermined those sounds for you.

A modular setup, on the other hand, is created by choosing the parts, known as modules, which then interconnect via patching cables to create electronic sounds. You can choose modules that house effects also, such as delay, filters, and reverb. You can get incredibly advanced with it once you feel comfortable with it, and the audio opportunities are mind-alteringly vast.

How to get started with modular synths:

Key Terms: CV, VCO, VCA, and VCF

To make some of the modular jargon less terrifying, these are the key acronyms you’ll need to make sense of it all. The first is CV, and don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you’ll be filling out any job applications. Modular synths use two types of signal. Audio is the final output, and then there is CV, which stands for control voltage. This analogue signal is the way information is sent between each module. This is very similar to how MIDI sends audio information in and out of a computer. CV can, likewise, be sent between hardware and software.

Beyond that are VCO, standing for voltage-controlled oscillator, voltage-controlled amplifier is your VCA, and finally VCF is voltage-controlled filter. In layman’s terms, these are all methods CV employs for applications such as modulation, changing the volume of an amplifier, a filter’s resonance, or setting the parameters of an oscillator as examples.

Trying a Semi-Modular Synth First

One great way of testing the water before fully committing to constructing your modular setup is to try out a semi-modular synth first. There are ample reasons to do so: some are very affordable so you can see what you think before spending more on a full modular system, and these synths are much more entry-level. Some great cheaper options are the Arturia MicroBrute, and the Moog DFAM is a semi-modular drum machine.


Another word that will come up a fair amount as you research the mighty world of modular is Eurorack. But what on Earth does it mean?

Eurorack synthesis is a particular modular synthesis variant characterised by modules that share a standard height of 128.5mm. This allows you to assemble your chosen modules, racks and cases from different manufacturers into a compact and space-efficient unit. All audio, control and synchronisation connections utilise 3.5mm tip/sleeve (TS) phone jacks and cables, akin to the plug size found on earbuds. The use of control voltages (CV) to manipulate parameters is universally standardised in this system.

See, not so complicated after all!

Choosing Modules

And now comes the very exciting part of selecting and sculpting your sounds. To create sound, you require three types of modules.

First up is source modules, which are aptly named as they are the source of a modular synth’s sound. They come in the form of noise generators, LFOs, envelope generators, VCOs, and more. Modulation modules then help you shape the sound. A basic starting point is a VCF, which shapes the tone. A VCA will give you volume, and from there, you can begin assembling delay, reverb, and more. Finally, logic modules provide timing information. In other words, they can be used to activate triggers and gates for differing sound patterns.

Creating Patches

This is where you really insert your own sonic signature onto proceedings. When you make your own modular synth patch, you are truly creating a synth sound from scratch, as there are no presets involved.

Patching is the name that comes from the famous image of a modular setup with its myriad of little cables — when you take a 3.5mm mono cable and choose which inputs and outputs to connect. To get your head around this, one method is to look up the signal paths of synths you like. You will see how the oscillators go into a mixer, a filter, VCA and LFOs under the hood. Once you’ve emulated the signal paths of existing synthesisers, you should then be more confident with creating your own signal paths and your own fully unique set of sounds.

FX Processing

To get your modular synth sounds really buzzing, you’ll want a nice chain of effects so things aren’t sounding dry. We could write an entire gospel on modular effects, but to get you cracking, you’ll want to check your list with some of the must-haves, such as reverb and delay. Modulation really soars in the world of modular, also.

You can get really weird, of course, as the possibilities are endless. Some names to look out for are Eventide, Strymon, Dreadbox and Earthquaker.

This could really become a weighty tome, as there is so much more to be said about the exhaustive world of modular synths. But hopefully, this beginner’s guide has cleared the air a little and demystified things without removing the magic. We wish you happy travels with your upcoming bleeps and bloops!

Further reading:

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