Modular synths come in many different formats. The aforementioned Moog and Buchla are two but there are also other 5U formats like MOTM and Synthesiser.com, there’s EMS and Serge, Frac and probably some I’ve missed out. The one I really want to focus on today is the format that’s caught the attention of the masses: Eurorack.
Before getting into modules and companies, there are some great resources worth looking into (as well as this). Firstly is MuffWiggler, which is a synth specialist forum, and basically the holy grail for all things modular. In my brief time there everyone’s been very friendly and there are tonnes of stickies on starting out and learning how to do this, that and the other so definitely invest some time lurking there.
The second is SoundOnSound’s excellent starter guide, which I read in their print edition back in 2011 and instantly decided this was for me. Tonnes of useful info about all the formats (again specialising in euro) and very well written and informative.
Finally, get a ModularGrid.net account (it’s free!). This is an html5 modular planner which is properly addictive, especially when starting out. You can build a hypothetical modular, see how much it costs, see its power consumption, plan which modules go where etc. etc.
Finally, Raul’s World of Synths is an excellent (mostly Doepfer-focused) YouTube channel that explains a lot of modules in a great amount of detail and depth.
This guide is going to assume you want to pursue the Eurorack format. After much deliberation, this was the route I chose. A select few of my friends had small euro systems, so advice was easy to come by.
Euro is smaller than other formats, (generally) cheaper and more uniformed in terms of power and signal level. Also, there seem to be euro companies cropping up every five minutes (which may be a good or bad thing) so there seem to be a lot of new products available and plenty of innovation.
So, some boring things to start off with. You’ll need a case, or at least something to house your device in. There are two routes you can take: buying a dedicated encasement (like these by Doepfer or Eastwick Cases) or something like TipTop Audio’s Happy Ending Kit. I went with the latter as it was cheaper and could be housed within racks, of which I had plenty lying around. It also meant I could expand without buying another case.
TipTop Happy Ending Kit, image © CONTROL.
The Happy Ending Kit (or HEK) contains the rack in which you can mount your modules, a unit to power your modules and something to plug that into the wall. They retail at around £130 from most stores. There are other options but this is the one I chose.
HP stands for horizontal pitch and is the unit we measure eurorack devices in. The TipTop Audio Happy Ending Kit is 84 HP wide which means you can fit as many modules that add up to that number in there.
For some comparison, the HEK comes with a power supply unit that is 4 HP wide (the silver device on the far right, named the μZeus). Some cases are 104 HP wide, some smaller. I thought 84 HP was enough for me to get started and build a basic device to get going.
Most eurorack modules are between 4 and 14 HP, with some as small as 2 and some as as big as 20 and larger. Most modules are an even number of HP but companies like Befaco, The Harvestman and hexinverter are known for odd numbered HP modules. If you have a 1 or 2 HP gap you can always buy blank panels to satisfy your OCD for filling space.
The first thing you need to think about is ‘what do I want my modular to do?’ It’s a profound question – you can build a basic monosynth, you can have something for live improvisation, something that focuses on generating sequences and patterns, an effects rack, something that manipulates signal or something that combines a little of all of these.
When I was starting out I wanted to first build a simple one-voice monosynth that did exactly what I’d expect of it; then, once that was done, I could expand by buying modules that performed routine functions. I wanted predictable sequencing with a little bit of uncertainty thrown in for good measure. I wanted to be able to get it to talk to Ableton but also take it out and have it as a standalone.
My first modules (bar the μZeus) were all made by Doepfer, who are like the Boss of the Modular world (the Boss owned by Roland, not some sort of hierarchical thing). Before I even had an oscillator I’d acquired a few ‘essentials’: VCAs and multiples. From left to right you can see:
- Doepfer A-138d Crossfader / Effect Insert Module (8HP)
- Doepfer A-119 External Input / Envelope Follower (8HP)
- Doepfer A-180-1 Multiple (x2, 4HP each)
- Doepfer A-124 Wasp Filter (8HP)
- Doepfer A-183-3 Amplifier (4HP)
- Doepfer A-131 Voltage Controlled Amplifier (exponential) (8HP)
- TipTop Audio μZeus Power Supply (4HP)
There are lots of reasons to start with Doepfer: they’re cheap, durable, there’s a tonne of selection and they do pretty much exactly what they say on the tin. Great for beginners:
I’d purchased some of these through EMIS Music (the UK’s leading Doepfer distributor) and some from eBay in a bundle (hence some choices I might not have made were they to be all purchased individually).
From there, I expanded into some different companies’ modules and started really customising it. But enough about me…