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.