To Modular or not to modular…….

To those of us who produce music with our DAW’s, VST’s, analog gear, & hardware the idea of modular can be a complicated yet rewarding thing to tackle.

The modular scene which ounce was the beginning of synthesis back in the 70’s found at college’s University’s and high-end studios around the world, drifted gradually into the background over the past few decades.  Since our technological revolution has started

So many people are now drawn to it & modular is experiencing a golden resurgence.  

I myself after having said for more than 4 years or so that I would never try modular have found myself tinkering around and even planned my first buy.  

So, two questions remain do you take the dive & if so how? Well the first question we can hopefully address here. So how you ask? Without spending the large amount of money on gear without really understanding it.  Look out here is VCV rack, a free yes free Modular stand-alone DAW.  Most of the modules being fee Is a huge plus.  To help us get over the steep learning curve there are many tutorials but even with them the curve can be steep for producers early on in their musical journey.  However, with research & practice modular can unlock creativity you have never known before.  Yes, sometimes you will have really no idea how you did that, & it sounds great.  Good news my friends with some backend routing you can have the audio sent to Ableton Live & even have them exchange midi information & CC back and forth, now if this is not a game changer, I don’t know what else would be.

I am not here to “sell” you on the modular concept but rather expand your way of looking at synthesizers.  Most of them we buy ready built hardware or Vsts’.  With modular it lets you build your own and keep building.  Not just building but even able to evolve as pieces no longer become useful you can swap them out for new ones. Build cases & dig further.   The Downside you ask? You may lose more than a few nights sleep researching & experimenting. Big deal that is what we producers’ have been doing already.  So, stop thinking about it & take a dive into the quantum realm of modular & better yet do it for free. 

Here are some thoughts from other Artists’ on modular …….

Per bpmf
Schmer, Serotonin Records, Bass Agenda

Modular synths are fun in the studio, but my setup is made for playing live and while I have seen some really amazing live performances based on modular systems: Dan Snazelle, Abby Echiverri, Leisure Muffin, Abe Duque and Bankr and more, modular synths are not for me.

The power of modular synthesis is that you have endless options for building your synthesizer, modifying how it’s controlled and integrating it with your gear in unique ways can lead to complex custom systems that is perfect for each track. What I need for a successful live show is a bunch of discrete boxes with well-defined specialized roles that I can rely on to “do their job” when I need them.  Because my performance is based on the orchestration of these instruments, they need to be responsive, so they each have tons of controls, but they need to be LIMITED. I do not have time during my performance to reassign a box that could do 20 different things to a different role than the one

I gave it at the start. My means to control these powerful technologies is to put limits on them. This challenges me as an artist to express myself using the paint I came to the canvas with. Performing with modular is like performing a painting while mixing paint and washing brushes. Some people can do all that and still create an engaging performance. I am not talented enough for that and need to focus on the things I can better control lest they take control of me.  Also, I hate all those wires in my way.

bpmf Studio pic

Per June Lopez June Lopez

Traveling Colors Music (USA),No Monsters music (UK),MOTSPHILLY, BLKPATCHES

Modular synthesis allows me the freedom to explore, and shape sounds with a flick of a switch, a push of a button, a movement of a physical knob, and a push of a fader. Synthesizers are made out of different parts of these modules and each one serves part of a specific design. A small modular setup, allows you to create familiar or unknown sonic territories to your heart content. My go-to modules is a flexible sequencer, integrate frequency  modulation, and several filters that help shape the sound I am looking for 

Modules that help shape my sounds:

Malekko Varigate 4 plus as my sequencer of choice

Klavis Twin Waves & Mutable Instruments Braids for my oscillators sound source

Make Noise Functions or Maths for on the fly frequency modulations 

Expert Sleepers Distanting mk4 for multi-function masterpiece/ the ginsu knives of various modules wrapped up in one

Onerment and Crime running original firmware or new hemisphere -broke new ground as a polymorphic module. A must-have for someone starting out.

Intellijel new 104hp case that just came out or even Palette 62HP Eurorack Modular Case

Hosa modular cables are my favorite but there are other brands 

June Lopez Studio Pic

Vincent – US, FOFN, LA

There are a lot of choices these days so know what you want and what your priorities are.

The biggest advantage to going modular is having seemingless unlimited creation potential literally at your fingertips, with limits lying only in what you can afford and how much time you have to learn each module and how it relates to your existing setup. 

With recent great strides in virtual technology (ie VCV Rack, U-He or Arturia and Roland for semi-modular) it’s hard not to consider starting off with a virtual rack before taking that financial plunge. Many of the modules are free, cheap, tradeable or directly parallel to existing hardware. Just know that once you open the door to either be prepared for a wild ride of swapping, purchasing, reselling and otherwise redesigning your rack. And you will not stop at one skiff.. or two.

We are in a great renaissance of hardware, software, interfaces, controllers, computer technology, communications, etc. So looking to hardware that isn’t modular there are a myriad of forward thinking choices well beyond your standard monosynth/bassline/acid machine that have been re-done for thirty plus years. There is quite a bit of semi-modular now, some very affordable. Being well versed in these as well as the basics of subtractive synthesis and maybe some additive will make the transition to modular less of a shock and potentially reduce the chance of frivolous purchases or mistakes.

From a sheer production standpoint–yes that means finishing tracks–those who have the discipline to capture their sounds for use as part of a track or live set are definitely getting their money’s worth. For purely artistic reasons they will probably have a higher level of satisfaction after achieving certain things, partly because of the difficulty or time involved or because it could be something that is truly unique. In conclusion, know what your priorities are, choose your path wisely knowing what you’re getting yourself into and be committed in whatever you do.

Per Kevin Tobbler a Seed Modular artist & modular synth maker

“Modular is a way to get great ideas and if you are focused and know what you are doing you can complete a track with modular synths or better, a live show. Also. It’s fun having lots of knobs and patch cables to lose yourself in.”

Thanks for reading …..

Josh Holiday, Label Partner at the Seed, Artist, Music tech enthusiast, Blogger 

Various places to purchase modular


Additional info;

ModularGrid is a database for modular synthesizers with an integrated planner where people gather information and sketch out their modular.

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