LPs, cassettes, modular synthesizers—there was a moment when these technologies were considered obsolete. Yet, like vintage clothing of the same era, all three formats are fashionable again…but for how long? In particular, is the current popularity of modular synthesis merely a trend or, like the stompbox, has it joined the mainstream?
While some say that modulars have begun to decline, allow me to paraphrase a misquote attributed to Mark Twain: “The rumors of modular’s demise are greatly exaggerated”
The Pittsburgh Modular Lifeforms SV-1 is an example of a gateway synth: an affordable semi-modular synth voice, with MIDI, in a powered case.
If you’ve paid attention to the NAMM show in recent years, or heard of SchneidersBuero’s Superbooth in Berlin, you’ve probably noticed that modulars are more popular than ever. The fact that Roland and Korg (historically conservative in their offerings) have products with CV and gate connectivity indicates that there may actually be a long-term future for the format (Eurorack, in particular), even if these products rarely sell in the quantities of more conventional instruments. Moreover, the analog pioneers—Dave Smith, Tom Oberheim, Dave Rossum, and the companies named after Bob Moog and Don Buchla—are back in the game.
Of course, anything you can do with a classic analog synth can be modeled in software. (Moog Music, itself, has done it with their Model 15 app while producing a high-priced hardware version.) Yet, it’s clear that, just as stompbox effects haven’t been replaced by plug-ins and apps, synth modules are not going away any time soon. And why should they?
These days, digital and analog technologies support each other. Today’s Eurorack modules, which pass analog voltages, often include some form of DSP. This allows developers to pack an extraordinary amount of power into an affordable product. In fact, we now take for granted things that were technologically impossible for Moog and Buchla to achieve when they were designing their first systems.
And unlike 40 years ago, we have lowcost and reliable ways to digitally control these instruments (MIDI, USB, OSC, Bluetooth), as well as capture their sounds (DAWs, samplers). Consequently, patch recall is less of an issue because we can record whatever we create, then play it back in a variety of ways.
Furthermore, synth modules are not genre specific (unlike music delivery formats). You can use them onstage or in the studio to create soundtracks, dance music, rock, jazz, hip hop, noise improv, and so on. They’re merely tools, like hammers and screwdrivers, and different ones serve different needs.
YOUR FIRST MODULAR
Every year, young musicians discover the modular format for the first time and find something intriguing about it. Maybe it’s the sound, or the format’s extensibility, or the DIY Maker-mindset that attracts them. Or, perhaps it’s that, after using digital re-creations of classic synths, they want to get their hands on the real thing if they can afford it.
Thankfully, the ubiquity of the Eurorack format has lowered the barrier of entry. Standalone starter-systems (with MIDI) are available for under $600, while Eurorack-compatible semi-modulars, such as the Make Noise 0-Coast, cost $499. At $299, the Arturia MicroBrute offers rudimentary patching and a traditional keyboard.
Best of all, well-built hardware synths will outlast their software counterparts and the devices that run them. Sure, you can get a modular synth app for $1.99, but that’s after you’ve plunked down several hundred bucks for your phone, tablet, or computer (plus accessories). But based on your experience so far with digital technology, how well do you think your smart device or computer will work 30 years from now compared to the hardware modules you own?