Most people are familiar with the modern synthesisers. It’s likely if you’re reading this you’re a bedroom producer of sorts and have probably heard of most of the main plugins people use – Sylenth, Massive etc. Perhaps you’ve even got a controller for inputting and tweaking MIDI data.

Maybe you’ve seen some student union indie band equipped with a microKORG or you may be lucky enough to own an analog synth or two. Either way, the majority of people are familiar with the architecture of what we know as a synthesiser: oscillators, filters, amps, LFOs and envelopes.

N.B. At this stage it’s worth noting that if you are unfamiliar with any of these concepts, you should probably have a look at this beginners’ guide to synthesis.

When you purchase a synth the oscillators, filters, and amplifier are all hardwired into a particular order; sure, you can modulate them with the LFOs and envelopes but that’s really about as much flexibility as you’re afforded.

lHowever, the modern synth as we know it has not always been this way. It wasn’t really until the very early seventies that it came to be an all-in-one. Before the synth there was the modular synth.

The principle of modular synths was that you had a module that performed a singular function (or a limited number). So maybe a few oscillator modules, VCFs, envelopes, LFOs, sequencers, slew limiters, VCAs, ring modulators and other such exotic things.

Image © Richard Devine.

A keyboard wasn’t even a necessary inclusion of early modulars; this would be an extra that was necessary to connect if you wanted to impress your friends playing Chopsticks (although Chopsticks would require loads of voices, and modular synths didn’t really handle polyphony that well).

Here’s Keith Emerson explaining in a more (or less?) eloquent manner than myself:

These monster synths are housed in huge cases and, to lay people, might look like something better suited to a laboratory rather than a recording studio but the flexibility and sonic possibilities are something than can go beyond that of a traditional synth.

Modular synthesis has been recently enjoying a revival of sorts through the Eurorack format, with big dawgs like Roland, Moog and even Waldorf (re)joining the party. So maybe it’s worth looking a little at the history and how to get started if you’re interested in delving into the modular world.

Why Modular?

Good question. Modular is great for a number of reasons, not least the flexibility of being able to re-patch your machine in nearly anyway imaginable can create sounds you might never have dreamt of using a mouse and keyboard. You can buy clones or filters from unobtainable synths, you can create huge stacked sounds not possible with plug-ins and you can improvise to your heart’s content.

In fact, modular synth collection is really like Lego for adults. Sure, you can buy the premade stuff and have it sitting on your shelf or you can really get inside something and combine modules from different companies, east and west coast, vintage and modern, analog and digital and build something totally unique that is never really the same twice.

Modular synthesis has a tonne of drawbacks and these often put a lot people off. Modular synthesis is hella expensive, there’s no doubt about that. Yes you can buy modules for as little as £50 but in reality, if you want some sort of functional system, you might need to put aside a few more of your hard-earned pounds than that.

For a start, before you’ve purchased your first oscillator you’ll need something to house your device, power supply and cables in. This can be as little as a £150 but for some even that’s enough to make them wince. To get a sound going you’ll need maybe three or four modules (more on this later) or a prebuilt system and these don’t exactly come cheap.

Modular doesn’t really do chords. Yes, polyphony is possible but it’s a pain in the ass and expensive. If you’re interested in playing chords I would really suggested either sticking to plugins or saving up for a decent poly synth. To reiterate, it is possible but it’s not an easy route. And if that still hasn’t put you off, modular doesn’t really handle stereo that well either (however, there are some stereo output devices available).

East Coast vs West Coast

Long before the much-publicised Bad Boy and Death Row Records row, there was Moog and Buchla. Trumansburg, New York’s Dr. Robert Moog (pronounced /ˈmoʊɡ/, or moge) is verging on a household name to most. From his legendary Minimoog to MoogerFoogers, Taurus to Theremins, and the Vocoder to the Voyager, Moog are not short on their historic music-making machines.

Before their ventures in keyboards Moog cut their teeth building furniture-like modular synths. Known for their playability and musical compatibility, these devices could be seen propping up the studios of Tangerine Dream, Giorgio Moroder, Hawkwind and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, to name but a few.

Image © Sphere Music.

With a plethora of modules available, perhaps their best known is the much-sought-after (and regularly cloned) Moog Ladder Low-Pass Filter, which is to my knowledge the only patented filter.

Buchla is a less familiar name. Started by Don Buchla in 1963 in sunny Berkeley, California, these machines were less about making music and more about creating sounds when psychedelia was in full swing.

The 200 series is one of more well known creations from Mr. Buchla. The modules it came bundled with were more esoteric than its east coast counterpart. Modules such as the Source of Uncertainty, Lopass Gate,  Function Generator, Spectral Processor and Kinesthetic Input are among the more sought-after and replicated devices.

The Buchla 200e, image © SoundOnSound.

There’s now some controversy about the ownership of the company with Don taking legal proceedings with the current owners, so keep your eyes on that.

If you’re interested in learning more about the history of modular synths I implore you to buy the I Dream of WiresI Dream of Wires. It’s a very comprehensive history of what came even before Moog and Buchla, right up to the eighties and modern day, and very much worth getting.

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