Of late, I have been bitten by the modular synthesis bug. For those of you who don’t know what that exactly means, let me quickly explain. Most synthesizers whether analog, digital, or virtual are comprised of sound generation components called Oscillators (aka a VCO), Filters (VCF), & Amplifiers (VCA), and modulation sources like Envelope Generators (EG), & Low Frequency Oscillators (LFO). In addition to this there are Noise Generators, Sample & Hold Circuits (S&H), wave shapers and many other possible accessories too numerous to mention. The “VC” in many of those designations stands for “voltage controlled” which actually only applies to analog synthesis, so in a digital, it might be called a DCO, and in virtual synthesis since it is really just software modeling going on, they may choose VCO or DCO as the metaphor for what the oscillator is doing since it is literally neither. What gives any given synth its distinctively characteristic sound, is how many of these items, of what type, in what configuration you have.
For example, since often times, the characteristic sound of a synth is thought to come from the kind of filter it has, you might think that a Moog Minimoog and a Roland SH-101 should sound similar since they both have 24db low pass filters, but if you compare the routing architecture diagrams of the Minimoog and SH-101 carefully, you will see they are radically different in terms of how each component is able to function. Because of these hardwired routing differences, you can modulate one VCO with another for Frequency Modulation (FM) Synthesis on the Minimoog, but not on the SH-101, even though they both have multiple oscillators, so despite the many similarities, this is one of many things that one can do that the other cannot, and the pros and cons work in both directions, so there is no obvious solution. These kinds of limits on one unit versus another is the reason so many synthesists end up collecting such a wide diversity of gear, so they can get that “Moog sound” for one track, and that “Roland sound” for another.
With modern DAWs, full of virtual instrument and effects plugins, you would think there should be no need for external gear at all, but one thing I have found from my many years of doing electronic music, is that the one thing that computers cannot seem to completely mimic is analog synthesizers, even popular virtual analogs that are supposed to be an Arp Oddysee or whatever, end up sounding to my ears more like a Nord Lead, Korg Prophecy, or Access Virus aka virtual modeling synths, not truly analog sounding, because that is precisely what those software plugins are, and having worked with many of these synths over the years, no picture on my computer screen with the right make and model name stamped on it, can fool my ears into thinking I am really on a Sequential Circuits Prophet 5. I have already ditched all my hardware effects except for one compressor, and one tube preamp used for my Condenser Microphone, which needs hot levels prior to the A/D conversion, and I am in the process of ditching many keyboards, (drum machines, romplers and samplers especially) other than my analog synths, (a Syntechno TeeBee, a Roland Alpha Juno-1 w/ PG-300 controller) and yes my Nord Lead since multi effects, sampling & virtual synthesis are indeed so good in software now, and I kept my Nord because it is better than most plugin virtuals. In my pursuit of analog bliss, I was finding that my future gear purchases were torn between many different models, many of which are costly units in and of themselves, so to round out my synth collection, I was looking at buying a new Moog Voyager, a vintage Korg MS-20, a Roland TB-303, and an Oberheim SEM (which was recently reissued), which would end up costing me $10,000 or more to complete the set, and that’s if I was able to track them all down in decent condition. To top it off, many of these vintage pieces are pricey to repair and maintain in addition to the already inflated vintage prices from their limited supply and high demand.
If only, there was one synth that had all the different kinds of filters I liked, a choice of the type / number of sound generators and modulators, and I was free to modify the routing architecture any way I could conceive of myself on the fly, that would be perfect. In the back of my head, I knew about modular synthesizers and had programmed on a few of them, but never owned one myself, since for many years it seemed that they were only ever produced in the distant past, and would have the same high cost, low availability, and frequent repairs issues of other vintage pieces, but that has since changed, as companies like Serge, Doepfer, and many others are making brand new modular components that are well built, available and reliable. So there it was; the final answer confirmed in many ways was now staring me in the face and it was called a modular synthesizer. This is not a completely new idea to me in a Newtonian “Eureka” moment as much as it is a return to my origins as a synth programmer, since I learned analog synthesis originally on an Emu Modular in the SYCOM electronic music labs of USF in my college days, but even with that bit of personal history, it was easy to overlook the benefits, since most music gear catalogs do not sell modulars, and most mainstream music equipment manufacturers do not make modulars anymore, so what is usually consuming the mind with thoughts are music equipment catalogs stuffed with one glossy page after another of shallow shiny new plastic keyboards brimming with youthful optimism promising to be the solution to all your problems, while the great substantive wise elder is easily forgotten. I credit my experience with modulars as the reason I have a solid understanding of programming any analog synth, since when it is you that has to connect every component into a functional design in order to even make any sound at all, it forces you to truly understand the underlying concepts, or else not be able to get anywhere interesting. The fact that modulars by definition, by being a collection of disconnected parts, with no patch memory, have to not only be connected, all the knobs must be adjusted to make it sound good, so the laziness afforded you of a brand new synth loaded up with thousands of patches where all you have to do is turn it on, and hit up and down arrows to call up tons of sounds someone else wrote who did understand the architecture, you no longer have to understand how it works, or how to program sounds from scratch, and you can simply scroll through the work of engineers and sound designers in complete ignorance. So now that you’ve opted for that synth that everyone else owns, and are using factory patch #230, you have abrogated the control over the timbral landscape to someone else, eliminating a vast swath of the potential creativity available to you as an electronic musician. What I have done over the years to compensate for this, is to backup the patches on my disparate units via midi sysex and then initialize the unit so I could force myself to at least program all of my own sounds rather than, rely on someone else, but I was still stuck with the hardwired routings the given gear manufacturer had provided, and I have also heard my keyboards used on other people’s records enough that I can pick out the Juno, or the Nord or whatever quite easily, as I’m sure many of you can too. Modular synthesis is a great break from all of those limitations, and imitations, since even if someone else bought a modular from the same company as you, what are the odds of them buying all of the exact same modules, and furthermore what are the odds of them hooking those modules up the exact same way, and furthermore adjusting every knob and slider to the exact same positions? Well, obviously the chances are nearly nil.
Now that the destination is set, I am on to the next thing, which is figure out what kind of modular synth to buy for myself, and try to figure out what it will cost to get me started. So far, I have been thinking that Serge is too expensive, at $1500 or $2500 per module, I could only get 4 modules before blowing the budget on my older analog dream team list. There are tons of small DIY oriented modular makers, but I am more interested in programming the synth than I am building it in the electronic components and cabinets sense, so that sort of led me naturally to either Doepfer A-100 system, or Eurorack which would include Doepfer modules and modules from lots of different manufacturers. I then went to the Eurorack MegaModular configuration site, and the Doepfer custom config page, and made this initial config, which still has plenty of opportunity to change. I am still asking myself lots of questions on the topic and would love to hear from anyone with a modular synth, as to what they went with, and why.
I’ve already had some of my burning questions answered by some qualified people. I first ran into Escape Philosophy on a Synthgear posting, and when I saw a post for his Error Correction EP release on his blog I made a comment. In the meantime I posted a tweet about the music and he replied saying that my question merited a blog post about analog sequencing to answer the question in my comment. Pretty Cool!