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Modular synthesis intro, part 2: Don't do it!

Sat 21 Jan 2017 by mskala Tags used: ,

When I started the market research for my business, I put together a profile of who'd be buying my products. I imagined my customers as the kind of people I've met in the modular synthesis hobbyist community. These are people with a fair bit of disposable income (typically because of having California "tech" jobs and no family except cats), who already have medium to large modular systems worth $5000 or more. They are already familiar with the concepts, have been doing modular synthesis for a few years already, and are looking for something extra to add to their existing installations.

My products are designed with that kind of customer in mind. My products are not aimed at beginners putting together a small system for the first time. And in particular, my products are not useful all by themselves. In the current version of the business plan, my cheapest fully-assembled modules are control-voltage generators planned to retail for $320 Canadian each. To even power one of those up and make the lights blink, you need a power supply, which is not planned to be part of my product line, and which might be $200 or more. And then to make it musically useful you also need things for it to control, maybe another $1000 worth of modules for the other parts of the synthesizer. And a box to put all these things in, which costs more than you might expect.

Maybe it shouldn't have been a surprise to me, but it came as a surprise when I started talking about my project to friends and family who've never done modular before and I realized that many of the people I talk to think it sounds really cool and they want to get into the modular game and buy my products. I've often ended up thinking, "This person's spouse is going to kill me for turning them onto this stuff!"

And as for my social capital and people wanting to help me, I'd rather spend that on your giving my contact information to attractive young women who are actively seeking boyfriends. The business can find its own customers. Just sayin'.

Modular synthesis is an expensive and addictive hobby. It's not something you should take up casually. So with that in mind, in this second part of the three-part series, I'm going to describe some alternatives to buying a modular synthesizer, that might suit a lot of readers better.

Keyboard synthesizers

In the early days of electronic music, people used modular synthesizers because they were more or less the only electronic game in town. But that is no longer the case. Nowadays, people whose main goal is to make music with electronic hardware pretty often buy ready-made keyboard synthesizers. There are digital ones; there are analog ones; there are sampling keyboards that can be programmed with the sounds of your choice (even sounds sampled from a modular synthesizer); and there are vintage keyboards with their own characteristic sounds now considered "classic." If you want to control the synth with something other than a keyboard, you can either plug the MIDI controllers of your choice into the keyboard, or get a rack-mounted synthesizer that makes the same kind of sounds without having its own built-in keyboard.

Keyboard synthesizers are not a cheap hobby, either. You can get one for not much money, and you can get a lot more sound out of it than a modular at the same price level, but the keyboard players of my acquaintance never stop at just one. They always have their eye on the next keyboard they want to acquire.

Keyboards can be more practical than modulars in other ways. For instance, if you're on tour, you can carry a keyboard (or two or three) with you more easily than a modular synth of equivalent capabilities. Similar considerations apply to professional musicians working in studios. You may be able to ask for such-and-such model of keyboard and get them to provide it for you at the venue or studio instead of bringing your own. Keyboard synths work much better in the existing infrastructure of the music business than do modular synths.

You can usually play chords on even a low-end keyboard synth. Building a modular capable of playing chords can be difficult and expensive, only accessible at the highest levels, because (depending on things...) it may require a whole set of modules for each simultaneous note as well as a more elaborate control system. I use a lot of chords in my own music and I usually do it by multi-tracking. I can't afford four copies of all the modules needed to play one note, so I record one voice at a time and then mix the recordings later. But that doesn't work well in a live performance.

The biggest advantage of a ready-made keyboard synth over a modular is in that phrase "ready-made." You flip the power switch and it's immediately ready to make music. If making music is what you actually want to do, the keyboard synth is great. With a modular, you may first have to spend months to years learning how the machine makes the sound and how to be creative with that. It's like being a "programmer" of keyboard synths - which is a different discipline from actually playing them.

And then you have to spend minutes to hours plugging in the cables to set it up for the sound you want, and then there'll be a lot of back and forth as you experiment with different sounds, and so on. Trying to record which thing plugs into which and which knob was set where so that you can reproduce it later is a lot of work. Depending on your style, this setup process can be a dealbreaker in a performance situation, and at least expensive and annoying in a studio, especially if other musicians are waiting for you to be ready. And it's no secret that many modular synth hobbyists spend so much time patching that they never get around to playing music as such, at all.

There's a joke about a certain computer operating system that if it were an airline, you'd show up at the airport to find airplane parts lined up on the tarmac. They might or might not for a complete set for building some kind of airplane. You find a wrench, which might or might not fit some of the airplane parts. It doesn't say on your ticket what kind of plane you're supposed to build. There are no blueprints. The only other people on the scene are passengers from other flights, most of whom are working too hard on their own planes to offer you any advice. And you're not sure that the others really know anything about airplanes anyway. That guy with the beard over there is trying to hurd an antelope (or is it a gnu?) onto a treadmill, which is connected to the propellor of his construction by bicycle chains. You'd better hurry up and build your plane now if you want to land at your destination on time. Maybe you can learn how to fly it once you're in the air. Making music with a modular synthesizer is sometimes a lot like that.

But that's part of the attraction for me. My modular synth arguably isn't really a musical instrument, even if I call it one. It's really a toy that makes a noise. I have fun playing with the knobs and the wires and hanging around with other people who do the same, and the noise that it happens to make isn't really the point. I think that many modular hobbyists feel the same way. It's not really about making music in the first place, so the fact that the modular isn't the most efficient way to make music, doesn't matter.

Loop players

One thing I think puts some people off keyboard synthesizers is that playing them requires a certain amount of physical skill. I never wanted to be able to play the piano enough to be willing to spend the practice time it would require, and I'm not eager to put in that investment for a synthesizer, either. On top of this, some currently popular styles of electronic dance music are so repetitive that they're both difficult and unpleasant to play, on anything resembling a conventional musical instrument. The people who want to perform that stuff don't want to have to control individual notes by hand, nor develop the skills to do so. In a different artistic direction, consider Piano Phase: part of what makes it impressive is the strain it puts on the performers.

Then it's no surprise that one of the biggest markets for modular synth hardware today is the EDM crowd. One of modular's strong points is playing looped, repetitive lines. Classic "analog" sequencers like the Doepfer A-155 can be programmed with a pattern of eight or sixteen notes and then will automatically repeat it without further human intervention. With a bit of control voltage processing, perhaps with an Intellijel μScale, you can apply in- and out-of-scale transpositions and make the pattern shift in musically appropriate ways. Transposing a repeating sequence is something for which Boards of Canada is especially noted. The MSK 008 VC Octave Switch (currently planned to be my second product) will also be useful in this kind of application. In a slightly different direction, Music Thing's Turing Machine generates its own looping pattern that can evolve over time. And there are many other sequencing options in the modular world very much appropriate to loop-based music. Here's Piano Phase again, on an ER-101 - which is one of my personal wishlist modules for when North Coast starts paying off.

But you don't need a modular to do this stuff, and frankly you might not want one for it. All the sequencing tasks those modules I just mentioned can perform, would be easier and cheaper to do on a laptop computer with sequencing software, and then the computer can do the synthesis too by playing samples. That's what people who are serious about EDM usually do. A product called Ableton Live seems to be quite popular. I haven't used it myself and can't give a detailed review, but in general, it automatically plays loops, with recorded samples or software synthesis, and offers a simple interface that's easy to use in performance. There are a few competitors, including some in the free software world, with similar capabilities.

You can do all your EDM on a laptop with Ableton Live. You don't have to carry around, and deal with setting up, cases of expensive and delicate modular hardware, and although you avoid needing physical instrument-playing skill either way, using software instead of modular hardware also lets you avoid learning the details of acoustics and signal processing needed to patch a modular in a controllable and repeatable way.

If you want to spend a little more money and don't like typing on a laptop keyboard, there are hardware (usually USB-MIDI) controllers specifically designed for controlling Ableton Live, typically with a grid of buttons so you can attach a sample of your choice to each button and activate it when you want it to become part of your song, on-beat every time.

The mid-range license for Ableton Live costs about the same as the bare-bones A-155 modular sequencer I mentioned (each is about $450 Canadian), but the hardware sequencer is far less versatile. On top of that you need a laptop for Ableton, but that's all you need, and it costs less than a modular synthesizer for the A-155 to control. Software loop-players are really the sensible way to do EDM performance, and they're what most people in that end of music-making use.

Software modular synthesis

The underlying theme of the previous sections is that if your main goal is to actually make music, there are easier and better ways to do it than with a modular synthesizer. If you want to play a musical instrument, try a keyboard synthesizer. Maybe you don't want to learn to play an instrument and just want to perform repetitive EDM loops. That's the kind of music modulars do best - and a software sample player does it better.

But maybe you're not so interested in making music and what you really want to do is learn the arcane technical details of acoustics and signal processing as used by modular synthesis. In that case, you should probably use a software modular synthesizer.

All the functional blocks that can be implemented as hardware modules, are also easy to implement in software, with data streams representing the signal values sampled over time in the way a hardware analog synth uses voltages. An oscillator can be just a routine that pulls successive numbers out of an array describing one cycle of the waveform. A VCA is just multiplication of numbers. A sequencer is basically a switch/case statement. And so on.

Someone with a computing background can easily imagine how it would be possible to build something like a modular synthesizer entirely in software. There'd be a priority queue of upcoming notes, some kind of object or thread for each module, a loop or microkernel or whatever that handles communication between modules, and so on. The user would select the desired modules and the connections between them, maybe even with a GUI representation of module faceplates and patch cables, and then the system would render the output. Like wiggling with a physical hardware modular, but all inside the computer. Maybe the deluxe version would even talk to outboard MIDI controllers to provide a physical hardware user interface to the virtual synthesizer.

The huge advantage of software modular synthesis is that (absent DRM licensing restrictions) there is no limit on how big a system you can build. If you want another module, you just instantiate the appropriate object again. Compare with hardware modular, where if you want another VCA you have to buy it and it costs fifty bucks or more. In software, a VCA is basically just a multiplication instruction.

For similar reasons, polyphony is usually near-unlimited with software modular synthesis. The system can just automatically instantiate an entire set of modules for each simultaneous note, whereas very few of us can afford to buy a few extra instances of a $10,000 hardware installation to run an elaborate single-voice patch with many-voice polyphony.

There are a number of software packages available for this sort of thing. I like Csound, which is one of the older ones. It has more or less the design I described: an event queue, tight loops routing signal streams among objects representing modules, and automatic instantiation of modules per simultaneous note. Csound as such is programmed in a somewhat peculiar language of its own, most closely resembling assembly language despite the common misconception among users that it is somehow derived from C. There are front-ends, some of them graphical and Web-based, to allow programming it in other ways.

For decades, academic researchers in music departments have been writing theses about new synthesis ideas and implementing them as Csound modules, so the system comes with a wide-ranging library of modules for almost every synthesis technique imaginable, including many that would be impractical to build as hardware modules.

In Csound, there are three implicit loops around the code - one for statements that execute per note, one for statements that operate per sample (although they actually execute at a slower rate on batches of samples), and one for statements that execute at a slower "control" rate for signals that don't carry audio frequencies. Statements for all three loops can be freely mixed in the source file; the compiler/interpreter sorts them out and runs them at the proper times. In practice, that's less confusing than it sounds, although still somewhat confusing. Part of the reason for the multi-loop design is to get the most out of CPU power, to allow the maximum number of modules and amount of polyphony on a given system.

Other software modular synthesis systems include Supercollider and PureData. Each system has its own take on the general concepts, but all can do roughly the same kinds of things. These and Csound are all available free of charge.

There is a little bit of cross-pollination between software modular synthesis and various kinds of hardware synthesis. The Nord Modular (out of production since 2009, and a coveted collector's item) was a software modular synth roughly similar to Csound, built into a keyboard synth box, with PC software for dragging and dropping modules in a GUI to create a patch that could then be downloaded into the keyboard synth. Online tutorials on principles of synthesis, like Gordon Reid's classic Synth Secrets articles, often use Nord Modular patches as examples.

Going in another direction, Qu-Bit used to make a module called Nebulae, which was basically a Linux machine running Csound in the form factor of a Eurorack module. Unfortunately, they tried to market it primarily as a sample player instead of as a Csound-programmable multi-purpose module. It wasn't an especially impressive sample player, it never really attracted the attention of the Csound crowd, and it's out of production now. You may note that that retailer's page I linked to (Qu-Bit no longer has it on their own site) doesn't even mention that the Nebulae was able to run user-supplied Csound code, even though that was the case, and would've been my main reason to buy one. Roland's "Aira Effector" Eurorack modules are DSP-based and to some degree are software modulars: with associated PC software, one can re-arrange the connections between "submodules" in the DSP code, to get different effects.

The point here is that there's plenty of depth and complexity to explore in software modular synthesis. As a learning platform for the synthesis concepts, software modulars are hard to beat. There are great advantages to being able to instantiate as many copies of a module as you want, and new modules, without having to buy new hardware every time. You already have a computer; why buy a separate expensive machine just to make a noise? There are also some technical advantages to software modular even for someone who also has a hardware modular synth, like the polyphony issue and the fact that software will always be tuned perfectly accurately unless deliberately detuned.

I often use Csound for prototyping synthesis ideas that I might plan to finally record on my hardware modular. It's also a destination in itself for some of my compositions that depend on extremely precise tuning, or heavy polyphony.


For most people who might consider doing it, buying a hardware modular synthesizer is not the best thing to do. It's expensive and addictive. Someone who wants to directly play a musical instrument will usually be better served by a keyboard synthesizer. Someone who wants to play EDM loops will usually be better served by a laptop running DAW/loop player software, such as Ableton Live. Someone who wants to tinker with synthesis concepts at a deep technical level will usually be served by software modular synthesis systems like Csound.

In the third and final installment of this series, I'll give some suggestions on how a person who nonetheless insists on getting into hardware modular synthesis, can do so.


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